Warning: Lovely But Lethal

The continuing discoveries of a 21st century artist and naturalist …

The first two pieces in this series on nature and photography explored different kinds of berries.  All of those plants had edible parts even if some were not as appealing as others (e.g. Purple-Flowering Raspberries mentioned in the first blog of this group).  This week the plants I’ve chosen are lovely but they come with warning labels.  To start with we’ll look at a plant I discovered on the bank of the New River in front of our home in the North Carolina mountains.

The plant was purple and gold (well bright yellow) reminding me of the school colors at my elementary school.  The blossoms were so small that had they not had such a lovely deep purple color I would surely have overlooked them.  This Woody Nightshade (a.k.a Bittersweet) according to Peterson Field Guide Medicinal Plants and Herbs has many uses but is also considered toxic.

On the plus side ‘[s]cience has confirmed significant anticancer activity.  [It is] used as a starting material for steroids.”  In folk remedies it was used externally to eliminate felons, warts, and tumors.  Other ailments for which the plant has been used include “gout, rheumatism, bronchitis, whooping-cough, narcotic, and diuretic sweat inducer.”  However, the plant is labeled toxic and it’s berries can be lethal in large doses.  According to the same source, it “will cause vomiting, vertigo, convulsions, weakened heart, [and] paralysis.”  And that’s just the plant and leaves. The berries, while green, “can cause diarrhea, pupil dilation, nausea and vomiting”.

So admire it for its unique shape, bright colors, and intricate structure but don’t include it or its berries in your summer salad.

Family:  Solanaceae; Genus: Solanum; Species:  dulcamara

Woody Nightshade

Woody Nightshade

Woody Nightshade Blossoms and Berries

Woody Nightshade Blossoms and Berries







Woody Nightshade Stem Blossoms and Leaves

Woody Nightshade Stem Blossoms and Leaves







I discovered the next plant last year on a day hike/fishing trip with my husband and his sister in Grayson Highlands Park.  The plant was in berry stage as this trip was in the fall of the year and looked like a little alien with eyes looking in all directions.  Indeed, one of its common names is Doll’s Eyes although it is also called White Baneberry.

At first blush it looks harmless – and being a member of the Buttercup family, really, how bad could it be?  After all the “Menominee [a Wisconsin, Algonquin-language Indian tribe] used small amounts” of tea made from the root of the plant to “relieve pain of childbirth and headaches due to eye strain.”  Again according to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, “it was once used for coughs,….colds,….[and was] thought to be beneficial to circulation.”

But whatever its previous uses and its unique look it comes with the warning label “Poisonous” with all parts being able to cause “severe gastrointestinal inflammation and skin blisters”.  Admire this little beauty from a safe distance.

Family: Ranunculaceae; Genus:  Actaea; Species: pachypoda

Doll's Eyes - White Baneberry

Doll’s Eyes – White Baneberry

White Snakeroot comes with a warning of an indirect nature.  It seems that this plant, when eaten by cows, can produce “Milk Sickness” in people who drink their milk.   This disease is what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother.  For a more detailed and fascinating explanation of Milk Sickness see Milk Sickness under Lincoln Boyhood a the National Park Service website.

Family: Asteraceae; Genus:  Ageratina;  Species:  altissima

White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot

The last wildflower we will examine for warning ‘labels’ is the airy and delicate Queen Anne’s Lace.  I used to pick these flowers, along with daisies, for bouquets to go in vases inside the house when I was small.  My stepmother would make me take them back outside because she believed they harbored Chiggers and actually referred to them as chigger-flowers.   I always felt that was unfair to the lovely flowers and now find that I was lucky not to get dermatitis or blisters from them.  (If you’re not squeamish about mites and such you can read more about chiggers here.)

It seems that while this lovely wildflower’s root tea was once used as a diuretic to prevent and eliminate urinary stones, it has a tendency not to want to be touched.  I guess the dermatitis and blisters it can cause must have a similarity to Chigger bites – thus explaining my stepmother’s aversion to the flower.

But Queen Anne’s Lace has a positive side to it as well.  Scientific experimentation has confirmed that it has “bactericidal, diuretic, hypotensive, and worm-expelling properties.”  The root “indicate[s] a cancer preventative effect” in scientific studies.  But let’s leave that up to the experts and heed the warning since it can also be confused with its relatives in the carrot family such as Poison Hemlock.

By the way, I have always been curious about why it is called Queen Anne’s Lace so I did a little research in that realm.  I found one site that gave several potential sources for the name.  Some of those are: a) The white florets create a lace collar around the purplish floret in the center – or the queen.  b) Queen Anne of England (1655-1714) pricked her finger while making lace and stained the lace.  This version attributes the “reddish/purple dot” inside each small floret. c) Named not for Queen Anne of England but rather Saint Anne, the patron saint of lacemakers.  You can visit the Carrot Museum of the UK’s site for more anecdotes on the source of the common name of this carrot/parsley/celery family wildflower.  

Family: Apiaceae;  Genus:  Daucus;  Species:  Carota

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace


Queen Anne's Lace Not Yet Blooming

Queen Anne’s Lace Not Yet Blooming

Queen Anne's Lace Bloom

Queen Anne’s Lace Bloom

Queen Anne's Lace - Not Fully Open

Queen Anne’s Lace – Not Fully Open

Next week:  Silly Superstitions?

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