By Don Tapio
For The Vidette
It’s that time of year when the rural landscape throughout our coastal area is filled with a variety of plants sporting colorful berries. Although most of us are familiar with the more common ones, like the prized little wild blackberries, Oregon grape and huckleberries, there are many other berries that ripen this time of year that are tempting for both children and adults to sample. The question, however, is: Are they safe to eat? When it comes to wild berries the list of safe vs. unsafe plants is never complete. In addition, plants are often more dangerous at one stage of growth than another.
Unfortunately, there are a number of “myths” regarding edible berries that continue to be handed down from one generation to another. For example, despite what you may have been told, “cooking” poisonous berries does not get rid of the toxins.
How about, “All berries that taste bad are poisonous.” The fact is that some toxic berries taste very bad and some non-toxic berries taste really bad. You cannot tell if a berry is poisonous just from the taste.
Another common myth is that “all plants that are not toxic to humans are safe for animals.” The fact is that some plants that are not toxic to humans are harmful to animals. A good example is lilies, which are toxic to cats, but not to people. Pets need protection just like children. By the same token, some plants toxic to humans are safe for some animals.
More than likely, you’ve heard that white berries are highly poisonous. According to the Washington Poison Center, most white berries are not poisonous. Eating one will probably not hurt you, but its always best not to guess.
Many poisonous berries produce very minor symptoms such as stomach upset, mouth and throat pain or skin rash. If large quantities are swallowed, or if a person frequently ingests smaller amounts of the fruit, more serious symptoms could develop. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of toxic berries than are others.
The best way to help avoid a poisoning is through education and common sense. Teach your children to never put leaves, stems, bark, seeds, nuts or berries from any plant into their mouth. Children are curious, and if it smells nice or looks good, they will try to eat it. Watching adults pick blackberries, strawberries and other edible fruit may encourage a child to pick and eat berries. Remember, plants can be tricky with one part being edible while another part is poisonous. A good example is rhubarb, where the stalks are used, but the leaves contain oxalate crystals which can irritate the skin, mouth, tongue and throat.
Poisonous plants are not limited to those found in woodlands and meadows that have toxic berries. Many can be found in our backyards. The leaves of tomatoes, potatoes, peaches, and cherries are considered dangerous if eaten. Many plants used in landscaping , such as daffodils, holly, lily-of-the-valley, English ivy, primrose and rhododendrons cause sickness or possibly death if eaten in large enough amounts. The best information I have found regarding plant toxicity is a fact sheet available from the Washington Poison Center titled: “Plants — Non Toxic vs. Toxic.” It is an excellent publication that provides a list of safe, as well as poisonous, plants and rates their toxicity from major to minor, including those plants that produce dermatitis. It also indicates which types of poisoning symptoms are likely for each plant listed. You can obtain a free copy of the toxic plant fact sheet along with many other educational resources at: www.wapc.org