National Park Mystery Plant 5: Admire the Flowers, but for Goodness Sake, Don’t Eat the Berries!
Do you like to pick berries along the trail so you can enjoy a tasty treat? Well, if you nibble this plant’s berries, you’ll wish you hadn’t.
The mystery plant’s berries are extremely poisonous. In fact, they are plenty toxic enough to make you very sick or even kill you. Although there have been no fatalities or severe poisonings reported in North America, it’s known that eating as few as a half-dozen berries from this plant can kill a small child or make an adult sick enough to seek medical attention.
Poisonings of this severity are quite unlikely, since a careful nibbler is unlikely to ingest even one of these berries, much less a half-dozen. The berries have a bitter taste, cause an intense burning sensation in the mouth, and can even raise blisters.
The witch’s brew of chemicals this plant packs has irritating effects as well as a toxic punch. Getting juice from the berries on your skin can produce the red, itchy rash that is the classic signature of contact dermatitis.
This plant’s roots are not something you want to mess with either. If chewed and swallowed in sufficient quantity, the roots of this plant can produce quite a vomit-a-thon.
You’ll want to be able to identify this plant – and avoid it -- if you find yourself in a berry picking or root chewing mood while hiking, picnicking, or doing other outdoorsy things where the plant grows. That’s a huge area -- including at least 32 states -- stretching from California to Alaska on the West Coast, down both sides of the Cascades, in the Rocky Mountains as far South as New Mexico, and in the northern and central states all the way to the Atlantic. On the east coast, it's found as far south as New Jersey. On the west coast, it is found in California as well as Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. In the Midwest and Great Plains, it is found as far south as Iowa and Kansas.
You'll find this plant in many NPS units, including Washington's Mt. Rainer National Park, Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, Michigan's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and Maine's Acadia National Park, to name just a few.
There are western and northern subspecies of this plant. The two subspecies substantially overlap, however, in both physical characteristics and geographic distribution.
This slow-growing plant is an herbaceous flowering perennial that has an upright-stemmed or bushy appearance when fully mature. It may have a single stem or several, and they can be as tall as 30 inches or so.
The plant has large, wide-spreading compound leaves arrayed in groups of three. Individual leaves are deeply lobed and sharply toothed.
The plant’s flowers, which are pretty enough to give the plant ornamental appeal, have 3-5 white petals and a roughly equal number of sepals (also white in color). The flower’s numerous white stamens are longer than the petals, giving the stamen cluster a feathery appearance. Flowering typically occurs in late spring and early summer (April-May-June). After the flowering cycle is completed, the petals fall away.
The plant’s berries grow in clusters on stalks. When the green berries ripen in mid- to late summer, they usually turn waxy-shiny red, getting darker with time, but are sometimes white. The individual berries are ellipsoid-shaped rather than spherical, and typically from 0.2 to 0.5 inches in diameter (being widest in the middle). The berries have black dots on them.
You can’t rely solely on an individual berry’s color, size, or shape to clue you in to its toxic nature. You need to heed all of the clues the plant and its environment present. Location offers help with identity. You’ll most likely encounter this plant within mixed evergreen, coniferous, or deciduous forests. Although it also grows on dry slopes, it prefers sites with deep, humus-rich, acidic soils, such as better-drained areas of canyon bottoms and stream corridors. The plant can grow in either open or shaded sites, and grows well at high, cool elevations. Because berry-eating birds are the primary seed dispersers (yes, birds can eat the berries with no ill effects), the mystery plant can be found in many locations, including isolated pockets of suitable habitat.
Can you name this plant? Be sure to see tomorrow’s Traveler for more information and discussion.