Blue berries, for juicy pies;
Eat 'em now, and no-one dies.
White berries, a little pale;
Eat 'em now, will your heart fail?
Red berries, stacked way up tall;
Eat 'em now, you won't see fall.
Red berries, take a good look;
Eat 'em now? First check a book.
Last night I ate my first all-local blueberry pie, courtesy of my new best friend, Sharon. And, no, it wasn't poisonous. In fact it was the best blueberry pie ever, in spite of Sharon's protest that Ontario blueberries are better.
We considered the tasting to be scientific research and determined categorically that local blueberries are not poisonous. In fact, with the exception of twistedstalk, I can't think of a local plant whose blue berry is poisonous. But that doesn't mean there's no danger in the woods. Before you happily include juicy wild berries in your dinner plans, make sure you know what you've got.
Roughly speaking, berries can be broken down into blues, whites, and reds. As the fractured poem states, you won't die eating a local blue berry. White and red berries are a little more trouble.
White berries were often called ghost or corpse berries by First Nations people, a not-so-subtle prediction for the fate of people who ate them. At worst, local white berries are deadly poisonous. At best, they're inedible. Either way, not a great choice for your pie.
Red is probably the most common colour for berries, and the vast majority are edible: raspberry, thimbleberry, soapberry, bramble, teaberry, red huckleberry, and even bunchberry (a.k.a. dwarf dogwood or crackleberry). But be careful. Western yew shrubs produce a fruit that looks a lot like a red huckleberry. The fruit (actually an aril) consists of a highly poisonous seed surrounded by a juicy red covering.
Be especially suspicious if your red berries are "stacked way up tall." There are two local plants which fit this description, devil's club and baneberry. Neither should be included in your dinner recipes. Devil's club, while apparently not poisonous to humans, is much better left to the bears. Baneberry is a different matter.
The first warning is in its name ? from an old Anglo-Saxon root meaning "murderous." According to Pojar and MacKinnon (in Plants of Coastal BC ), all parts of the plant are highly poisonous, and "as few as 6 berries can induce vomiting, bloody diarrhea and finally paralysis of respiration." To confuse matters slightly, baneberries can be either shiny red or shiny white, sometimes even on adjacent plants. Either way, don't serve stacked berries to your dinner guests (unless of course they refuse to help with the dishes).
Lots of other poisonous plants grow here, but since they don't have attractive berries they're less likely to be eaten by an uniformed muncher. Examples include Indian false hellebore, poison hemlock, most members of the buttercup family (like larkspur and monkshood), as well as lupines and vetches.
Learning to distinguish tasty from toxic is a very compelling reason to learn your plants. It's also likely to increase your chances of receiving a return invitation from your dinner guests.
Upcoming Events :
September 1 Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 7 a.m.
The Whistler Naturalists' weekly Sunset Nature Walks are now finished for the year, but we plan to host all-day trips to places such as the Whistler alpine and to Cheakamus Lake in the fall. Watch this column for more details.
Written by: Bob Brett