I often have the urge to take a short cut while hiking. I think to myself, if I just go up over the ridge, down the other side, I will save myself at least an hour. Three hours later I am negotiating a steep rock bluff in my runners that got wet wading through the swamp, my water bottle is empty and my stomach is growling. To tide you over until the trail reappears, as it almost always does, this is an opportune time to know what is edible and what is poisonous in our forests. This week we will go over three very common plants in our area that can be fatal if mistakenly eaten, while next week we will examine some of the delicacies offered by our local vegetation.
One of the more appetizing looking poisonous berries in our forest is that of the Western Yew,Taxus brevifolia. Although classified as a tree because yews can reach heights of 15 metres, this beautiful evergreen with its long drooping branches is generally much smaller and more shrub like. The needles are compressed laterally, flexible and arranged in two rows giving an overall flat appearance to the long branches. This tree can be distinguished from most other conifers by its large juicy red berries that surround the seed cone. This is a delicacy best left to the birds as the seeds and foliage are very poisonous to humans, as well as horses and cattle. Strangely enough moose are particularly fond of Yew as a staple in the winter.
Baneberry, from its very name suggests keeping it a safe distance from your lips. Actaea rubra, can be found in low lying areas right to the sub-alpine, along stream banks and throughout moist areas in the forest. It is a bit of a spindly looking plant because it has few leaves sporadically placed along the stem. The leaves are made up of two or three leaflets that have many sharp teeth and points. The plant blooms into bouquets of tiny white flowers that give way to clusters of brilliant red berries, or if you are lucky to see the rare variety, snowy white ones. Eating just a half dozen of these berries will cause vomiting, bloody diarrhea and ultimately paralysis of the respiration system.
Whether you are hiking in the alpine or along the roadway up to Rick’s Roost, you are sure to come across Indian Hellebore, Veratrum viride, one of the more violently poisonous plants around. Growing up to 2 metres tall, this perennial is distinguished by its large, prominently and orderly veined leaves. The leaves look distinctly like giant lily leaves, as Indian Hellebore is a member of the Liliaceae family. A large single spike grows from the centre of this plant where it erupts into wilting limbs, where numerous green flowers bloom. Not only can this plant cause you serious, excruciating death in 20 minutes but you may feel effects of the poison by drinking the water near to where this plant is growing. I suggest that if you do not want to foam at the mouth, lose your sight, vomit uncontrollably and die that you and your pets stay well away from this one next time you forget your snack.
All in all, a good rule of thumb in the forest is not to eat anything unless you are sure you can positively identify the right plants. We are lucky in this part of the world that the edible nature is bountiful. We will discuss this further in Naturespeak next week.
Saturday, Aug. 23- Ethnobotanist Extraodinaire, Nancy Turner will be in Whistler to share her knowledge about our local forests. Stay tuned for updates.
Written by: Veronica Sommerville