This mystery plant is pretty…… and poisonous. Sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats will eat it, and therein lies the rub.
The half-dozen poisonous varieties of this plant, all perennials, are members of the Fabaceae family. They produce pretty summer blooms that add to the beauty of the rugged Western landscapes in which they are found. You’ll find them in lots of places in the foothills, mountain ranges, and intermountain areas of the western states. That’s because they grow in a variety of open and not-so-open ecosystems, including sagebrush, grasslands, aspen groves, and coniferous forests.
You'll find our mystery plant growing in a number of western national parks, such as Great Basin National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Some varieties of our mystery plant can grow up to 40 inches tall under ideal conditions, but most varieties top out at around one to two feet. The leaves of the plant are distinctive, being comprised of several leaflets radiating from a central point.
The mystery plant blooms during the warmest months, meaning June through August in most locales. The most common color of the blossoms is blue, but some varieties have white, pink, or yellow flowers. Seed pods usually make their appearance in July and August.
Ranchers and herdsmen hate this plant with a passion and may call some of their most imaginative expletives into play when discussing it. You really can’t blame them. Viewed from the perspective of the livestock producer, this plant is pure trouble.
The poisonous varieties of this plant are toxic to sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats (yes, even goats) from the time the plants begin to grow until the time the seed pods of mature plants shatter in late summer or early fall. Every part of the plant is toxic, and although younger plants are more toxic, the seeds and seed pods of older plants are more dangerous because animals find them tasty and will often eat them in preference to safe forage. Since hay contaminated with the seeds and pods of this plant can poison livestock too, animals may be at risk even when they are on supplemental feed.
The effects of the poisoning depend on the type of livestock and factors such as the amount and type of plant material ingested during a specific time interval. (If ingested repeatedly over a period of 3-4 days, even small amounts that are normally harmless may accumulate to dangerously toxic levels.) Among the classic symptoms or outcomes are:
• Excessive salivation or frothing at the mouth
• Depression, lethargy, or loss of appetite
• Difficulty in breathing
• Convulsions, twitching leg muscles, or loss of all muscular control
• Hepatic degeneration (liver damage)
• Fetuses with skeletal defects or cleft palate
There is no known treatment for the poisoning, but livestock producers know that animals not too badly poisoned may fully recover if given safe supplemental feed and allowed to rest.
Do you know what this mystery plant is? Be sure to read Mystery Plant Revealed in tomorrow's Traveler for the answer and more discussion.