Friday, March 11, 2011

Poisonous Plants Series Part 2 {Nuts, Seeds, & Berries}

Welcome back to our Poisonous Plant Series. We hope you enjoyed Part 1 {Flowering Plants}.

Although many of our native and introduced nut, seed and berry producing plants are also known as flowering plants, I have grouped them separately because they are renowned for their fruit/seed production. Also, most of the following highlighted plants/trees feature a lower toxicity level - although this shouldn't be accepted as meaning less dangerous. The toxicity level may be much less in some cases, but they can still be quite dangerous - especially to children.

Pictured on right - Itty-Bitty Ashby with handful of acorns: Notorious for packing pockets full of nuts. One time, I found a gazillion wormy-like insects in her room. I traced them back to a bag full of buckeyes she'd stored in her bookshelf!

Also, it should never be assumed that a fruit or nut (seed) is completely safe, even when it's listed as nontoxic. Some people have food allergies that can cause mild to severe symptoms when coming into contact with these. Also, people with certain pollen allergies may react adversely to certain fruits or nuts. For instance, people with an allergy to birch tree pollen may also be allergic to apples. Weird, huh?!

Clover, our border collie with an allergen list a mile long, is extremely allergic to Hickory - second only to Chamomile. We had a full workup done on her a couple years back. When we found ourselves with a very sick pooch this past camping season, it didn't take me long after we got home to realize the hickory nuts we'd been playing with all week (oh, how I love that green husk smell!) was the culprit that set her off. Thank goodness the torrential rain came in and cut our trip short! Four hundred dollars and seven weeks of antibiotics (for secondary scratching and ear infections) later, she was well again. Needless to say, it didn't occur to us then how terribly dangerous hickory trees were going to be for our family.

Toxic - potentially fatal in large quantities

The nut of a Buckeye tree is similar in appearance to a chestnut, but you wouldn't want to roast these over an open fire. The nuts, leaves, and sprouts (especially in early Spring) contain a toxin that is harmful to humans. Deaths from ingestion have been reported.

Identification: There are four main species of Buckeye tree (also could be called a Horsechestnut in some parts) that decorate East Tennessee. The Yellow, Red, Ohio (above left), and Painted Buckeyes are all native species, along with a few hybrid trees that aren't graced with easy to remember common names. They all have a similar appearance, but can range in height with Red and Painted growing 16 - 26 feet, Ohio 50 - 82 feet, and Yellow 65 - 154 feet. All have a similar, compound leaf structure with leaflets in sets of five, fused at the base,  and evenly toothed. Flowers in panicles (clusters - think Lilac) and are yellow on the Ohio, Painted, and Yellow species of tree. The Red Buckeye produces red flowers. After blooming, a smooth, round capsule forms which can contain 1 - 3 smooth, shiny brown nuts with a whitish-beige "eye" or "scar" (right).

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Muscle weakness, dilated pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, paralysis, depression, and stupor.

White and Black Baneberry
Toxic - Potentially fatal in large quantities. Severe mouth pain if consumed.

Both of these plants produce berries in the late Summer, early Fall. All parts of this plant are toxic, especially the berries and roots. However, the attractiveness of the berries make this plant especially dangerous to curious hands/mouths.

There are also two species of Bugbane (Mountain and Appalachian) in our area that are cousins to Baneberry and worthy of noting because they are just as toxic. Appalachian Bugbane is threatened in our area, and I'd imagine if Mountain Bugbane isn't yet, it will be soon as the USDA is only reporting it in 6 counties now.

Identification: Both Baneberry plants are dark green, growing 1-2 feet, with divided and subdivided, sharply toothed leaflets. Small white flowers cluster on the end of a long, naked, usually red stem (think bottle brush) and produce berries there. White Baneberry (top left) fruits are white in color with a large, black "eye" on each (giving the plant another common name: Doll's Eye as seen on Right). Black Baneberry fruits are shiny, purplish-black.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Severe burning of the mouth and throat, salivation, severe stomach cramps, headache, diarrhea, dizziness, hallucinations. A handful is enough to be fatal for an adult. As little as two berries could kill a child.

Red and White Mulberry
Low Toxicity

Mulberry wine, mulberry jelly, dried white mulberries, mulberry pie. Typically, mulberry is not one of the first fruits or berries you're going to consider toxic. But well-meaning cooks or curious eaters may not know that the unripe berries and the milky sap from all parts of this tree contain a hallucinogenic toxin.

Identification: Deciduous tree with alternating, somewhat coarse leaves that are toothed, hairy on the bottom (Red only) and have 3 different shapes: Oval (no lobes), Mitten (two-lobed), or Dinosaur-Footprint (three-lobed) (left). Flowers are small and tightly clustered. The berries of a Red Mulberry start out red and become purplish-black when ripe. White Mulberries produce white, lavender, or black fruits. The fruits are similar in appearance to a blackberry (below right).

The color of the fruit does not correspond to the color of the species! Nor does it tell you whether the fruit is ripe or not. To check for ripeness, the fruit should be moist and squishy. Unripe fruits are hard and crunchy.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Stomach upset, hallucinations.

Beechnut (Beech)
Low Toxicity - Large quantities necessary

Now, before you send a ton of emails saying beechnuts are completely edible, read me out. Although beechnuts are edible - raw or roasted - you should do so only when ripe. Children will be affected by this far more than adults, and you wouldn't want that little adventurer being plagued by a terrible bellyache on the trail, camping, or otherwise. In small quantities, the ripe fruit (indicated by a cracked, browned husk) can be eaten raw or roasted, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. It is not advisable to eat the unripened nuts (indicated by a green husk).

Identification: A large, deciduous tree with a distinctive, smooth, grey bark with "eyes" (right). Leaves are toothed, simple, and alternate (above left). Beech trees flower inconspicuously, and the fruits (nuts) are contained in a weak, spiny husk that opens in thirds. The nut has a prominent three-angled shape.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Stomach upset

Virginia Creeper
Severely Toxic - possibly fatal

Virginia Creeper is a plant that is often mistaken for Poison Ivy. It is a climbing vine that overtakes areas (and other plants!) quickly, and even around here I've found it tangled amongst the Wild Grape (edible). Which can be a terrible problem if you're in the habit of eating Wild Grapes.

Identification: A climbing vine with toothed leaves, five leaflets to a stem. Flowers small and inconspicuously. In the late summer - to early fall  it produces dark blue to purplish-blue berries in a terminal cluster.  Berries could be mistaken as wild grapes.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Nausea, bloody vomiting and diarrhea, abdominal pain, dilated pupils, headache, weak pulse, sweats, drowsiness, and twitching of the facial muscles.

In case of poisoning by and plant or substance, you should contact the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

I have to add this. These are plants found in our region - East Tennessee. Your area may differ, your poisonous plants may differ. Also, none of this information should be taken or used as medical advice. It is for educational purposes only. Please seek medical attention ~ not blog-help ~ if you or someone you know has ingested, inhaled, or otherwise come into contact with an unidentified plant.

Photos not watermarked with Random Joy Photography courtesy of Wildwood Survival, Ben Kimball, University of Tennessee AgResearch, Seiberling-Weakley-White,