Sunday, August 23, 2009
A Deadly Poisonous Trio
Looking at all those berries yesterday got me to thinking about stuff out there that could really make you sick. Could, in fact, really kill you! I prefer to dwell on the healing power of nature, but I admit that it's good to know what things could hurt you. Here are three that you might find growing right now. You can look, even touch (wash your hands!), but for heaven's sake, don't put them in your mouth.
White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) is blooming abundantly along woodsy roadsides now, often mixed with its fellow eupatoriums, Boneset and Joe-Pye Weed. There's no reason to think we would want to eat it ourselves, but cows, it seems, will eat just about anything. If a cow does eat this plant, it won't necessarily kill her, but her milk could kill those who drink it. I've read that's what happened to Abraham Lincoln's mother. But jeez, this stuff is growing all over the place! How do we know the milk we buy at the grocery store is not deadly? Because that milk is never from one single cow, but rather, from hundreds, even thousands of cows from numerous dairy farms, all mixed together at processing plants, diluting any toxins to safe levels. But what about small local farms that sell their milk directly? (Are there any?) Let's hope they keep the White Snakeroot out of their pastures.
Most folks won't eat wild mushrooms, anyway. But I do. I know about a dozen species I'll pick and enjoy, but never, ever, ever will I eat an Amanita. Or any other mushroom I am not absolutely sure of. I'm not absolutely sure of this one, in fact, except I believe it's one of the Amanitas: note the cup at the base, the ring around the stem, the gills that are free of the stem. This may be an Amanita gemmata, which is indeed poisonous, although not quite as deadly as its cousin Amanita virosa, also called the Destroying Angel. For a riveting account of someone who survived eating that Amanita, check out the Cornell Mushroom Blog. Most folks don't survive it.
This next plant is a poisonous cousin of several plants we eat: carrots, parsnips, parsley. It also looks like several of its cousins that are perfectly benign: Queen Anne's Lace or Water Parsnip. But be careful not to confuse them, because this one could do you in. It's called Bulb-bearing Water Hemlock (Cicuta bulbifera) and it's not related in any way to our forest-dwelling conifers called hemlocks. It is, however, related to the the hemlock that Socrates drank a cup of when he was condemned to death. All parts of it -- roots, stem, leaves, flowers -- are deadly poisonous. (At least to humans. I often find bugs feeding on the flowers. Are bugs impervious or are the nectar and pollen untainted with the toxins?)
This plant grows in wet areas, in marshes and along river banks, as does another deadly poisonous Parsley Family cousin, Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata). The bulb-bearing kind is distinguished by its very fine leaves and the tiny bulblets that cluster in its upper axils.
So there you are. Forewarned is forearmed. Although I can't imagine why anyone would eat any of these anyway. But keep them away from small children. Or serious enemies.