Beware Of Deadly Beauties

Who knew there was danger lurking among the ditch weeds? Well, perhaps many people, but I wasn’t one of them.

The many wild plants and flowers that surround our country home represent one of the special benefits of living in a rural area. Their fascinating variety of shape, form and colour make them a real source of pleasure in the summer months.

My favourite — yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) — though not common, has become more abundant along the ditches in our area over the last 20 years or so. I search carefully for the pointed green shoots every spring, anxious to know they have returned after another long, harsh winter. They never disappoint. A member of the orchid family, this beautiful, slipper-shaped flower traps the insects which pollinate it. I have also learned that this plant can only flourish in soil that contains a specific fungus and it will not grow in a cultivated garden. I have, therefore, resisted the temptation to move one to my own flower bed.

Though my husband and I recognize many species immediately, I decided it was time to broaden our knowledge and make a concerted effort to identify some of the unfamiliar plants we spot while walking along our country road. We bought a guide to wayside flowers which features photos and detailed descriptions of plants with intriguing names like showy locoweed, rosy pussytoes, field mouse-ear chickweed, greater bladderwort, butter-and-eggs, tumbleweed mustard, fringed yellow loosestrife, wormseed wallflower, curly-cup gumweed, Arctic sweet coltsfoot, and starry false Solomon’s seal.

One morning we pinched small samples from five or six specimens along our route and then hurried home to make identifications. Sitting on the patio with toast in one hand and plant guidebook in the other, I began my inspection. Among our samples were showy wood aster, American vetch and meadow buttercup. Then suddenly, I made a disturbing discovery. The small, innocent-looking star-shaped white flowers I had taken from a larger rocket-shaped cluster were in fact white death camas (Zigadenus elegans).

“Beware!” the guidebook warned. “All parts of this plant contain toxic chemicals more potent than strychnine, though human deaths usually occur when the bulbs are mistaken for those of a wild onion. Just two bulbs can be fatal. Sheep in particular, but also cattle, horses and chickens have been poisoned in large numbers.”

What a shock. A native Albertan who spent much of her childhood wandering woodlands and pastures picking wildflowers and weeds at will, I naively believed that there were few botanical dangers in this part of the world. I knew there were berries and mushrooms that should not be ingested, but the idea that attractive blossoms could be deadly had never occurred to me. Needless to say, I tossed my toast away, disposed of the sample and scrubbed my hands.

But the biggest scare was yet to come. My husband, who was sitting across from me studying the leaves and stems of the largest of our samples, suddenly announced that while what he was examining looked very much like the harmless and edible common water parsnip, closer inspection had revealed that it was, in fact, spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), the most poisonous plant in North America. A native perennial herb found in wet soils and marshes across most of Canada, it is deadly to all types of livestock and to humans. The toxins are concentrated in the chambered rootstock but also occur in the leaves and stems. The consumption of even a tiny amount of the leaves and stems is lethal and the oil in a single bulb is enough to kill a 1,600-pound cow! Further research revealed that children have been poisoned when they make pea shooters out of the hollow stems. The onset of symptoms is often so sudden and traumatic that treatments are not always successful. Death can occur within 15 minutes after a lethal dose. This common plant is also known by the names beaver poison, children’s bane, false parsley, muskratweed, musquash root, poison hemlock, poison parsnip, snakeroot, snakeweed and spotted cowbane.

We were both a little shaken at what we had discovered and a little embarrassed by our naiveté. We called our county’s weed control officer and were told that while she was aware of the presence of these toxic plants in our area, the county does not spray for them and has no plans to eradicate them. Clearly, it is up to the individual to be aware of potential dangers. We now have a new and healthy respect for the flora of Alberta and we have established a new rule for dealing with unfamiliar foliage: Though a plant may be attractive and appear harmless, pick nothing. Appearances can be deceiving.

Lois Gordon writes from Sherwood Park, Alberta

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