Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poisonous Plants Series Part 3 {Incredible - but toxic - Edibles}

I'm really excited to share Part 3 of our Poisonous Plant Series - {Incredible, but toxic, Edibles}! If you need to catch up, you can find Part 1 {Flowering Plants} here and Part 2 {Nuts, Seeds, & Berries} here.

When I first began studying wild plants in our area, I was quite surprised to learn that many of them weren't as dangerous as I first believed. I remember as a young child, I was lucky enough to have a grandfather who, I still believe to this day, knew everything. He taught me a lot about things outdoors, and although he wasn't much of a hiker or backpacker, he'd lived off the land long enough to know his stuff.

Although I didn't realize it until later in life - long after we'd lost him all too soon to a stroke - I'd already eaten, sucked, nibbled, infused, stewed, and cracked many of the plants I was studying. We'd dig up the roots of sassafras for tea, and although I loved the smell of it, I remember strongly disliking it's flavor - even with more sugar than was probably necessary. Berries were picked galore with the majority being wild red raspberry and wild blackberry. I'd stand watch while my grandmother carefully washed, picked, and jellied the buckets of berries we'd bring in. We chewed on Sourwood leaves, sucked the nectar off Honeysuckle stamens, and ate freshly dug, raw Wild Potatoes straight from the ground (better to cook them, I've now learned). Everyday was an adventure with him around.

Now, I'm re-learning most of this information that he filled my tiny head with back then. Some of it is familiar, other parts are not. The best thing I've learned so far is that we have some incredible plants here in East Tennessee. So incredible that sometimes - just sometimes - they're poisonous AND edible. How can that be? Let me show you.

Common Elderberry
Low toxicity

Possibly another super-fruit, elderberries are known by researchers to aid in boosting the immune system, and help fight against some common ailments such as a cold, flu, cough, and chest congestion. Hippocrates described the Elderberry shrub as a medicine chest - full of nutrients and health benefits. One type of nutrient, known as flavonoids, are responsible for the high antioxidant properties of elderberries. The type found in these berries is one of the most powerful, and known to aid against cell damage. Also, elderberries may improve vision (especially night vision), and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases due to its ability to block LDL (bad) cholesterol oxidation.

Elderberries are perfectly edible when ripe. Even the flowers are edible! The roots, leaves, and unripe berries should be avoided.

Identification: A deciduous shrub with a soft, woody stem and large white pith (inside). Flowers are white, small, and erupt in large, umbrella-like clusters (top left). Fruits are small, purplish-black when ripe (right).

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Nausea, Vomiting, diarrhea, and in extreme (rare) cases - coma.

Pokeweed (Poke)
Highly toxic - fatalities have been reported

It's hard to have lived in the southern Appalachian region and not have heard of Poke Sallet (Salad).  I've never actually tried it, but people who eat it say it's wonderful. The "salad" is not eaten raw, like a true salad, but is rather double-cooked (in two waters) and eaten like cooked greens (much like collard or turnip greens).

I've always heard the saying, "If it's red, you're dead!" The harmful part of this plant are the roots, seeds, mature shoots, and leaves - especially so if they've already turned red.  When preparing poke, you should never include the root, and make sure to discard any shoots tinged with red.

Identification: A widely branched, weedy plant with large leaves and thick stalks that turn red as the plant reaches maturity. It flowers on long stalks and are grouped in droopy clusters.  The berries are glossy, purple-black with red stems.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Burning mouth and throat, salivation, severe stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, spasms, convulsions, death.

Toxic except for Mature Fruits

I believe the Mayapple to be God's way of tucking a little tropical into our East Tennessee hills. The mature fruit (or "apple") doesn't taste like an apple, but rather has a distinctive lemon-lime flavor. And the "apple" doesn't ripen in May, like the name suggests. It's the appearance of the gorgeous little white flower peeking out from underneath that puts the "May" in Mayapple. (Left - photo taken yesterday: Mayapples emerging for Spring)

Identification: Look for Mayapples to grow in groups (right). One single rhizome grows below the ground from which multiple plants sprout in early Spring. Usually two types come up: A single stemmed plant and a Y-stemmed plant. Both will have a large, umbrella-like appearance with the leaves being deeply lobed and rounded in shape. The Y-stemmed plants are the ones that produce fruit.

On these, a single 6 (rarely 9) petaled, white flower (left) will appear around May and mature into an egg-shaped, greenish-yellow fruit by June. The fruit ("apple") will ripen usually by late July, early August and have a deeply yellow color. Because the leaves of the plant begin to die off at this time, it is suggested that you locate the Mayapples for harvest before they've grown to maturity. Look for these beauties in low-lying, moist, wooded openings.

All parts of this plant, except the mature pulp around the seed, are poisonous: the unripe fruit (right), leaves, roots, and seeds.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, excitement, headache, fever, coma, possibly fatal.

For more on the Mayapple, visit this awesome article over at Mother Earth News.

Wild Parsnip
Mild Toxicity - Contact Dermatitis Warning

I've never eaten, gathered, or even photographed Wild Parsnip, but after stumbling across it during research for other plants listed here I had to include it. It's a very interesting plant even without discussing the existence of a compound that causes phytophotodermatitis. Huh... What?!? Phyto- (plant) photo- (light) dermatitis- (skin irritation) - easier when you break it down like that!

In essence, sweaty, wet skin mixes with a chemical produced by the Wild Parsnip plant when you're out chopping it down, digging for roots, and before you know it, there's a big rash appearing on your skin. It could cause a burning sensation at first and later may appear blistery, runny, red, and inflamed. It is primarily associated with the chemical "attracting" or "magnifying" more of the sun's ultraviolet rays. So yeah, it's kind of like getting a really bad sunburn on patches of skin where the chemical has made contact.

Identification: A coarse, biennial herb that produces a low rosette of leaves in the first year, and a thick, hollowed, deeply-ribbed stalk topped with an umbrella-like cluster of tiny, five-petaled, yellow flowers the second. Leaves are without stems, alternating, toothed, oval in shape, and sometimes lobed. The fruit is elongated and dry. First year taproots are used like farm grown parsnips.

Route: Contact Dermatitis

Symptoms: Red, inflamed, irritated skin - may appear with blisters. Could take months to heal. Sometimes cause hyper- or hypopigmentation after the healing process.

Uncertain Toxicity - Could cause cancer

Worth noting is the recent research regarding the use of Sassafras in teas and edibles. Studies have found that a chemical inside the plant (Safrole) caused tumors - including cancerous tumors - on the livers of animals who'd been given a long-term exposure. No human studies have been done that I could find. But because of the animal research, the Food and Drug Administration has banned Safrole as a food additive. Some sassafras products, like Sassafras Tea, can still be found because it is marketed and sold as a "natural food."

It is not known for certain whether Sassafras causes cancer in humans, but researchers suggest you limit your Sassafras intake. Just for reference, long-term exposure would be like drinking 10 cups of Sassafras Tea daily, so limiting your Sassafras habit (does anyone have one of these?) to once a week may be okay.

Identification: A medium-sized deciduous tree growing 30-59 feet tall with bark that is deeply grooved and similar in pattern to an oak tree. The leaves are alternate, simple, and smooth, and can vary between having no lobes to up to four lobes. The flowers are tiny, yellow, and five petaled with blue-black, egg-shaped fruits maturing in late summer.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Long-term exposure could possibly cause cancer.

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.