by Glen Herbert
It’s a wild world out there. Some things don’t want to be eaten, others don’t want to be touched. Even in our forests, which are a long way from the Amazon basin or Australia (i.e., places that have some really, really vicious stuff in them) some plants can be very unpleasant and at least one of them can even kill you. Which makes nature a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise.
Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans: Like reading Beowulf, it won’t kill you, but can be really unpleasant. It has three leaves that, no matter how many times someone points it out to you, will still look pretty much like everything else out there. You know: green, leafy. It’s most potent in May, grows close to the ground, and you need to touch it to be affected. Touching someone who has touched it isn’t enough. Treat it with oatmeal (applied externally) and sympathy cards.
Water hemlock, Cicuta maculata (or the bulb form, Cicuta bulbifera): It’s the only really deadly thing you’re going to find in a Canadian forest beyond falling trees and some species of mushroom. You need to eat it to die from it, so don’t eat it. Not even a little bit of it. It doesn’t help that for anyone who is anything less than an avid
horticulturalist (a show of hands?) can mistake it for something edible, like dill or wild carrot. Small white flowers spread out in an umbrella shape on top of a purplish stem standing 3 to 6 feet high, they grow in wetland, marshy areas, and along riverbanks. It’s all over the place and, good grief, just leave it alone.
Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca: Most third-graders can spot this at a few strides. Pods, seeds, milky sap, all over dry fields and along roadsides. It’s the sap that is poisonous. Trust me, it doesn’t taste like milk, not matter what people call it.
Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix: This is another easy one to spot, though it is just one member of the sumac family, and the only one that is poisonous. You need to touch it to be affected, and it will raise an itchy rash much like poison ivy. It’s nice that it advertises its toxicity in its name. Also nice is that it’s rare, and to be affected by it you almost have to go looking for it. So, don’t.
Blue Flag Iris, Iris versicolor: This is the garden variety iris that you see in lots of people’s gardens except mine because I’ve managed to kill it. Beautiful, tall, with purple flowers and graceful green leaves. Poisonous if you eat it, just really pretty if you don’t.
The rule of thumb is this: rest easy in the knowledge that what doesn’t kill them will teach kids a lesson, or maybe even a few lessons. Our forests can be very educational.