Sunday, July 7, 2013

Be aware of Deadly Nightshade

Beauty and folly are old companions. – Benjamin Franklin 

Berries to avoid. Photo: Arthur Chapman, Flickr ccl

For all of our weeding, there seems to be one plant that keeps popping up, be it through our holly hedge or in our perennial and vegetable beds. I kind of hate to pull it up because the flowers are nice. But even though something is beautiful, it is folly to assume it's safe.

Photo: tdietmut, Flickr ccl
This pretty vine is “deadly nightshade.” That's what we call it in Nova Scotia, and the warning in its name is for good reason.

I remember being told about Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) from the same age as I was warned about poison ivy. I was to never eat it and shouldn't even touch it – either one, to be exact. 

You child will encounter it. Make no mistake. It’s common. Luckily it’s only coming into bloom now. If you don't teach them about this plant it will only be a matter of time until one of those berries ends up in a small mouth. Forewarned is fore-armed.

I have found from my own experience the little fruits that follow the attractive flowers actually smell a little like tomatoes – not unpleasant at all. They are an important food source for some birds. Interestingly, three members of the Solanum family are cultivated as extremely important food crops for humans: the tomato, potato and eggplant.

Nightshade is native to Europe and Asia, but is now naturalized almost world wide, where in places it is an invasive weed. It can grow in woodlands through to marshes. 

Nightshade is a semi-woody perennial vine, which scrambles over other plants, and is capable of reaching a height of 12 feet, although 3-5 feet is far more common. The leaves are arrowhead-shaped, and often lobed at the base. 

Nightshade flowers bloom in loose groupings. They are star-shaped with five recurving purple petals and yellow stamens and style. One European variety blooms white. The fruit is an oval red berry that serve as food for many birds. 

Photo: Mollivan Jon, Flickr ccl
It's interesting information about being food for birds, because the information on human consumption is sharply divided. It all depends what branch of government you wish to believe (if either...).

I found the following post online, from no other source than our own Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility:

General poisoning notes:
Climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a naturalized woody vine that is found along fencerows, among shrubbery, and at wood edges across most of southern Canada. The plant, especially in its green immature fruits, contains steroidal alkaloids, which have caused poisoning in cattle and sheep. Humans may have been poisoned after ingesting immature berries. Recent experiments show that the mature red berries contain only a small amount of toxin and have little chance of harming children (Alexander et al. 1948, Cooper and Johnson 1984, Hornfeldt and Collins 1989).

So I guess it's the immature berries that are to be avoided more than the mature. Good info to know, or is it???

This is the cover of the IWK Health Centre's
Poison Plant Guide that I designed.
The link is below. Useful information.
Just when I was believing our Canadian Government (for the first in a long time...), I found this in the Nova Scotia Poison Plant database from the NS Museum system:

{Poisoning] symptoms resemble those caused by ingestion of green potatoes: abdominal distress, headaches, and weakness, among more serious indications. 

Most toxic are the leaves and unripened (green) berries.

Poison Location
All parts are toxic, especially seeds, fruit, and leaves. (my emphasis)

Poison Type
Indole alkaloids in jimsonweed; and solanine, another toxic alkaloid, in green potatoes and nightshades.

So apparently all of it is to be avoided. Although fatal human poisonings are rare, there have been several cases. The active poison is believed to be solanine. Solanine is a glycoalkaloid and is the exact same compound that makes green-tinged potatoes inedible. 

If you're interested in what other plants are lurking around that might kill you, take a look at the following. This is a little self-serving, but here's a link to a brochure published by our own IWK Health Centre. It lists a great number of poisonous plants that can be found in the wild or in the home. It's a very useful guide for any parent – or even pet owner.

Better safe than sorry, especially since most of us will be out and around throughout the summer with children in tow.


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