Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poisonous Plant Series Part 4 {Ferns & Fungi}

Welcome back! This is the fourth and final part of our Poisonous Plant Series. So far, we've covered some of the most notorious poisonous {flowering plants}, some need-to-know info about {nuts, seeds, & berries}, and summed up a few of East Tennessee's {incredible, but toxic, edibles}.

Last, but certainly not least in the series is {Ferns & Fungi}. Both of these require a lot of expertise to confirm species. Ferns are just plain hard to identify. And to be fair, in order to cover fungi as thoroughly as it needs to be, we'd have to write a post a day for more than 2,000 days just to cover the known species in the Smoky Mountains alone.

Most people intent on eating anything from a fern are looking for fiddleheads. I don't know of any fern that's considered deathly poisonous, but there is at least one mildly toxic, possibly cancer causing fern worth mentioning below. It's suggested that any fiddleheads collected for consumption be young, very tightly furled, and never eaten raw. They're usually pretty bitter and unpalatable anyway, so you'd want to cook them with something flavorful. "Yes, I'll take one-half of a little fiddlehead with my bowl of butter and salt, thanks."

Brackenfern (Bracken)
Mild toxicity when eaten in excess - Potentially causes cancer.

Bracken contains an enzyme known as thiaminase. This enzyme destroys thiamine (vitamin B1), a water-soluble vitamin responsible for helping break down sugars in the body. Japanese research suggests a link between excessive consumption of Bracken over time and the incidence of stomach cancer.

Identification: Our most abundant fern. Grows from 1 to 6 feet, and has large, coarse, erect fronds that are attached to a slender rootstock. Usually divided into three sections and largely triangular in appearance. Fiddleheads are shaped like an eagle's claw when unfurling and is covered in a silver-gray "hair." Mature stems are partially grooved in the front, and colored green then brown.

Route: Ingestion of raw or excessive amounts of fiddleheads

Symptoms: Weakness, high fever, uncoordinated, convulsions; possibly stomach cancer.

As for mushrooms, the one piece of advice I'm going to offer with certainty is NEVER eat a wild mushroom unless you know without a doubt that what you're consuming is safe. There are so many different species that it is extremely difficult to identify exactly what you're looking at. Also, I've noticed that while trying to identify a fungus, the characteristics may be the same but the appearance may vary greatly even within a species. Lastly, I'd suggest that you take up being detail-oriented. The difference between life and death could be the smallest subtlety.

There are a few types you should definitely stay away from. This website (from the Missouri Department of Conservation) lists quite nicely mushrooms that shouldn't ever be consumed.

Although I originally intended on listing a couple types that are known to be poisonous, I really feel it necessary to leave this to the experts. Even after preliminary research, every question answered led to more questions needing to be answered. If it seems like I'm playing it safe here, then you're correct. When it comes to identifying mushrooms, I always play it safe.

If you are seriously interested in eating wild mushrooms, then I would suggest buying an identification manual, practice before eating, and joining a local mushroom hunting club.

In the case of poisoning by any 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 J.S.Peterson & Jeff McMillian