Saturday, August 22, 2009

Berry Hunting

Not quite so hot today, overcast, a little rain now and then. A good day for short trips to various sites to see what plants are in fruit. As the season for flowers winds down (some gorgeous asters are yet to come), the season for beautiful berries begins. Not all of them are good to eat, at least for us humans, but all are good to look at and learn about.

My first stop was a sunny clearing near the entrance to Skidmore Woods, where I found numerous plants of Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum). Just as its name suggests, this plant has little orange fruits that circle the stem in the leaf axils. Occasionally, I find a full set of six, but more often two or three in each tier. I wonder who eats these fruits. There's a closely related plant called Wild Coffee that has fruits much like these that contain seeds that can be roasted like coffee beans. I don't know if you could do that with these fruits as well.

That same sunny clearing is home to lots and lots of Blackberry plants (Rubus allegheniensis). The unripe berries are a brilliant red to match the prickly stems. The ripe ones are glossy black, a little bit sour, but quickly consumed (I left a few for the picture-taking, eating my fill as compensation for lacerated shins).

I moved into the woods to seek Mayapple fruits (Podophyllum peltatum) and found quite a few, some with their leaves still attached. Everything about this plant is poisonous, I've read, except the fruit when it's ripe. It was ripe today, soft and fragrant and full of juicy flesh. The flavor? Ehhh. . . kind of bland. (Well, sure I took a bite!) I've heard it makes good jam. Even more important, though, is the fact that this plant is the only known source of Podophyllum, a substance that, while toxic, has been found extremely useful in treating skin cancer and venereal warts.

Nearby I found the ripening berries of Solomon's Plume (Smilacena racemosa). This plant is usually called False Solomon's Seal, but I think it deserves to have its own name, and not be false anything. Some botanists agree and offer "plume" as an alternative. I love the raspberry ripple effect of the not-quite-ripe fruit.

In the same dark woods I found Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) in fruit. But wait a minute, these blue balls may actually be the seeds, the fruit part having fallen away. I remember reading something like this, but can't relocate the source to be sure. They sure look like berries, though, and very pretty ones, at that. But they're as hard as cherry stones, with only the thinnest coat of dark blue flesh.

Not a fruit, this, although it hung from a tree. A very active wasp nest, too, with big ones flying in and out. I didn't get close enough to take their picture, but got the heck out of there.

My next stop was Yaddo, a woodsy artists' retreat on the eastern edge of Saratoga Springs, where lots of Northern Prickly Ash shrubs (Zanthoxylum americanum) grow around a pond.

It has bunches of bright red berries that split open to reveal glossy black seeds. I have read that oil extracted from its bark and berries has been used historically in herbal medicine for various ailments. And its bark can be chewed to relieve toothache, it's said, earning this shrub the alternative name of Toothache Tree. Of course, I had to try it, chewing on a twig for a moment or two. Well, my lips and tongue turned numb, all right, but I don't know if it would have numbed a painful tooth. The numbness lasted about half an hour.

There were two dogwoods in fruit at Yaddo. Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) with bright blue berries on scarlet pedicels. . .

. . . and Panicled Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) with porcelain-white berries on bright-pink pedicels. Birds will gobble up the berries of both these bushes.

This Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) had clusters of both ripe and unripe berries, making a pretty multi-colored display. I even found twigs with blossoms still opening, tiny greenish-white almost invisible flowers that produce these beautiful fruits. I've read that this shrub can be an invasive species, and for sure I found plenty of these bushes at Yaddo. I suppose the birds help to disburse the plant by consuming the berries and pooping the seeds far afield.

We humans had better not eat these berries, though. They contain glycocides that are strongly cathartic and will make us vomit. In his Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman informs us that veterinarians use a substance obtained from this genus as a purgative for dogs.


Tom said...

Jackie- what a great idea for a post. I enjoyed seeing all of your images. I hope the rhamnus isn't too bad in you area. Here in Ohio it is an agressive invader of our calcareous fens.

catharus said...

Right now, just like every year, the leaves of the Panicled Dogwood at my place of work is being eaten up by small white idea what they are.

Woodswalker said...

Hi Tom and Catharus, Thanks for your comments. Yes, the rhamnus is moving in, but not too terribly as yet. My favorite marshes are still free of it. I found one shrub a few years ago on the river bank, but either beavers got it or high water drowned it.

How sad that your dogwood leaves are being destroyed, catharus! Those leaves turn a most beautiful dark burgundy in fall, making quite a contrast with the white berries and pink pedicels.

Clarence said...

Excellent photo and ID. Thanks so much for this invaluable info.