An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Poisonous Plants

Dogbane Beetles Emerging & Mating

7-8-16  dogbane beetle 283After feeding on Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) roots and overwintering underground, larval Dogbane Beetles pupate and emerge in early summer, shortly after the Dogbane plant for which they were named begins to flower.  It’s hard to miss these iridescent beetles as they gather to feed on Dogbane leaves (which are poisonous to many creatures, including humans, and can cause cardiac arrest). Soon after the adult beetles emerge from the soil , they mate, usually about once a day, frequently early in the day.  Males search for and choose females to mate with.  Dogbane beetles often have more than one mate, so after breeding, males ride on the backs of the females to guard them from other suitors (see photo insert).

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Dutchman’s Breeches Flowering

5-6-16 Dutchman's Breeches IMG_9223

How incongruous that a spring ephemeral as beautiful as Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is extremely debilitating to any cow that eats it.  The most common bovine symptom of poisoning by Dutchman’s Breeches is a staggering gait (it’s referred to as “staggerweed” by some farmers) and a decrease in milk production.  However, according to the Veterinary Medicine Library at the University of Illinois, there are far more severe symptoms. “Experimental feeding of these plants to steers caused sudden trembling which increased in severity, frothing of the mouth, ejection of partially digested stomach contents, and convulsions. The eyes became glassy, and the animals went down and moaned as if in pain.”  Certainly this is a plant one should admire and experience visually, not gastronomically.

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Snakeroot Flowering

9-17-15 snakeroot  261Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a perennial with clusters of tiny flower heads each containing multiple white flowers at the tip of its stem. Its roots were used to make a poultice to treat snakebites, hence, its common name. Large patches of Snakeroot can be found flowering in Northeast woods at this time of year. Eventually tiny black seeds with white, hairy wisps are dispersed by the wind.

Snakeroot contains a toxin called tremetol that is toxic. An animal may die from eating either a large amount of Snakeroot at one time or small amounts over a long period. When the plant is consumed by cattle, the meat and milk become contaminated with the toxin. If this contaminated meat or milk is consumed, the poison is passed on, and if enough is ingested, it can cause “milk sickness” in humans, a potentially lethal illness. Thousands of mid-West settlers in the early 1800’s died from this disease (possibly including Abraham Lincoln’s mother) as they were unfamiliar with the plant and its effect on their cattle. Snakeroot is also poisonous to horses, goats and sheep. Today small amounts are used by herbalists to treat a variety of ailments, from high blood pressure to insomnia. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)

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Red Baneberry Flowering

5-15-15  red baneberry & goldenrod crab spider  087Red Baneberry is most noticeable in mid-summer, when its flowers have developed into bright red (poisonous) fruits. At this time of year, its delicate white flowers look very much like those of its close relative, White Baneberry (which eventually bears white poisonous fruit). The easiest way to differentiate the two species at this time of year is to notice the shape of the flower cluster. Red Baneberry’s cluster is more or less spherical, whereas White Baneberry’s is more cylindrical.

A Goldenrod Crab Spider, capable of changing color from yellow to white or vice versa, depending on the color of the flower it’s on, perches on Red Baneberry flowers waiting to pounce upon an unsuspecting pollinator.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit Fruits Maturing

jack in pulpit fruit 022After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.

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Destroying Angels Fruiting

9-17-14 destroying angel 005There are several species of poisonous mushrooms in the genus Amanita in the Northeast that are referred to as “destroying angels” but the most widely distributed and commonly encountered is Amanita bisporigera. It has a smooth white cap, gills, a skirt-like ring underneath the cap surrounding the stem (annulus) and a swollen stem base enclosed in a cup-like structure (volva). As it ages, this mushroom often acquires an odor reminiscent of rotting meat. Destroying angles are mycorrhizal with oaks – the underground portion of this fungus surrounds a tree’s rootlets with a sheath, and help the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. Destroying angels are among the most toxic known mushrooms, and closely resemble other white mushrooms that are edible. Consult an expert mycologist before consuming any mushroom that even remotely looks like this!

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Poison Ivy Fruit An Important Spring Resource for Birds

4-9-14 poison ivy fruit 138There are a number of birds that have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds and are working hard to find enough to sustain themselves until food is more plentiful. Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrushes, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers adapt their diets to whatever is available at this time of year, which can mean going from eating insects to consuming fruit. Fruits that persist through the winter are few and far between, but one of the plants that provides the most sustenance to birds in early spring is Poison Ivy. The off-white, berry-like fruits are extremely popular with at least 60 species of birds, including the early returning migrants previously mentioned, as well as Gray Catbirds, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Wild Turkeys, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. The popularity of Poison Ivy fruit with birds explains why this plant is common along fencerows and other areas where birds roost (and pass the seeds). (Caution – irritating urushiol, an oily resin found in the sap of Poison Ivy, is present in the leaves, stems, flowers, roots and fruit of this plant.)

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American Elderberry & the Elderberry Borer

9-9-13 American elderberry 183Interestingly, while the ripe fruit of American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is used in the production of wine, pies and jelly, the leaves, stems, roots and unripe fruits of this plant are poisonous, due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Elderberry Borers (Desmocerus palliates) seem immune to these crystals, however. They lay their eggs at the base of the plant, and the hatching larvae then burrow their way into the stems and eat tunnels into the roots of the plant. Adult beetles that emerge and are present through the summer are hard to miss, with their shimmering blue and yellow/orange outer wings, or elytra.

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White Baneberry Fruits Mature

8-15-13 white baneberry fruit 056All parts of the White Baneberry plant (as well as Red Baneberry) are highly toxic. The fruit, called “doll’s eyes” for obvious reasons, is the most poisonous part, known to cause respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest in humans. It does not have this effect on all mammals, however. White-tailed deer are known to browse on baneberry, and small rodents such as mice, squirrels and voles feed on the fruit. Geometrid moth larvae (“inchworms”) burrow into the fruits and their seeds while they (the fruits) are still green. A wide variety of birds, including American Robins and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, eat the fruit, helping disperse the plants when they excrete the brown, wedge-shaped seeds (insert). Ruffed Grouse also eat the fruits, but the seeds are destroyed in the digestive process. Oddly enough, Native Americans used the juice of Red Baneberry to gargle with as well as to poison their arrows.

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A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!

Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.

White Baneberry

White baneberry (Actaea alba) is most conspicuous in late summer, when its white berries tipped with a black dot are evident.  It is not hard to see why it is also called Doll’s Eyes – the berries are said to resemble the ceramic eyes of old-fashioned china dolls. The entire plant is poisonous – just  a few berries can cause dizziness and nausea in humans.  However, they are eaten by ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and American robins.  White-footed mice and southern red-backed voles also dine on them.  The leaves and flowers of its relative, red baneberry (Actaea rubra), closely resemble white baneberry, but in the fall it’s easy to tell them apart  by the color of their berries (see 7/10/11 blog post) , as reflected in their common names.