Home / Blogs / Botanical Boogeymen: Unveiling the Dark World of Poisonous Plants
October 25, 2023
As temperatures cool, backyards across the Bay watershed change to that scenic autumn landscape. Looking out into my backyard, a red, orange, and yellow wall provides the perfect backdrop for a raucous squirrel chase and the slow bobbing of mourning doves forging through fallen sweetgum and oak leaves.
For some, this unique charm autumn holds over them invokes spooky thoughts, weekend bonfires, and squeezing in last-minute outdoor adventures before the coming winter season. Yet as we spend more time outside enjoying the cooler temperatures and telling haunts and tales along the way, underneath the leaf litter lies sleeping dangers all too real, only awaiting to be reawakened by the spring sun.
Come with me as we traverse a dark world of poisons and hallucinogens closer than you might think, just outside your door.
In Appalachia, each year in early spring, hundreds of landowners scour their property for a wild edible plant known as ramps, a delicacy in the area. If you are unfamiliar, Ramps (Allium tricoccum) is a wild cousin of onion and garlic with a similar strong flavor. Typically, you can find ramps in low-lying meadows, along creeks and seeps, and in open areas of hardwood forests, giving off that classic onion aroma that invites you to come to collect them—however, to the untrained eye, the decision to forage or not may be deadly. American False-hellebore (Vertatrum viride) is commonly found in the same habitat as ramps. This perennial plant typically has large, broad leaves and can grow between two and seven feet tall. In late Summer, False-hellbore produces tall, erect spikes of greenish-white or yellowish flowers with six petals. In early Spring, False Hellebore and ramps look almost identical, with the same broad ribbed leaves clustered together. Unlike ramps, False Hellebore contains steroidal alkaloids, which are highly toxic and can cause dizziness, seizures, coma, and death if ingested by humans or animals. Touching and handling False Hellebore is unadvised, as the toxic compounds can be absorbed through the skin. While False Hellebore may not be the most common plant in most of our backyards, the number of accidental poisonings from consuming False-hellebore has increased dramatically in recent years due to the popularity of foraging.
Poking out of the forest floor, ramps (left) and hellbore (right) are commonly mistaken for one another.
American and European Lily of the Valley (Convallaria psuedomajalis and Convallaria majalis) are delicate and charming perennial plants native to Europe, Asia, and North America. While only the American Lily of the valley is native to the region, both European and American species are commonly found in flower beds across the United States and known for their two elliptical oblong leaves and dainty, bell-shaped white flowers that emit sweet, intoxicating fragrance in the spring, giving it the nickname the Flower of May. Lily of the Valley has been used to portray purity, joy, love, sweetness, and serenity throughout cultures worldwide. However, almost as if Mother Nature wrote a sick cosmic joke, Lily of the Valley is toxic when ingested despite its alluring appearance and fragrance. Containing cardiac glycosides, Lily of the Valley can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, fluctuating pulse rates, irregular heart rhythms, and death in severe poisonings. Most cases occur with children allured by the orange-red fruits in Late Summer and Fall there are some cases with adults mistaking the plant for ramps.
Lily of the Valley plant with flowers.
In 1676, British soldiers sent by King Charles II to pacify the ongoing Bacon Rebellion and stationed in Jamestown. While there, the British soldiers ate a dish that contained a mix of leafy greens and, for ten days, were put into a hallucinogenic stupor. While the effects initially seemed good-natured, the symptoms of delusion, agitation, and delirium worsened, and soldiers were confined for fear of harming themselves. After eleven days, the soldiers had no recollection of the experience, and the term Jamestown Weed was born.
Datura stramonium. Hallucinogen plant Devil’s Trumpet, also called Jimsonweed.
The culprit, which goes by numerous names (Jamestown Weed, Devil’s Snare, Devil’s Trumpet), was boiled Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) leaves added to the dish. Jimsonweed is a highly toxic and hallucinogenic plant that grows in various regions worldwide, including North America. It is a nightshade family member (Solanaceae) and is recognized for its large, trumpet-shaped white or purple flowers and distinctive spiky seed pods. When crushed, Jimsonweed’s oak-like leaves smell disagreeable and, to some (including myself), a bit like feet. While it may appear harmless, all parts of the Jimsonweed plant contain tropane alkaloids, which can cause various dangerous symptoms when ingested, including hallucinations, agitation, dehydration, delirium, elevated pulse, hypertension, and fever. Despite its toxicity and dangerous side effects, Jimsonweed is used in some traditional medicine and cultural practices to this day; regardless of its documented use, all parts of Jimsonweed are highly toxic and should be avoided. It is worth noting as well that the Nightshade family Jimsonweed is a part of contains a variety of plants that are extremely toxic and should be avoided. Additional native toxic plants from the Nightshade family commonly found in the Bay watershed include Horse-nettle (Solanum carolinense), Eastern Black Nightshade (Solanum ptychanthum), and Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dilcamara).
Hallucinogen plant Devil’s Trumpet (Datura Stramonium), also called Jimsonweed with white, trumpet-shaped flowers and spiky seed capsules.
So, as we revel in the vibrant colors and embrace the crisp autumn air, it is crucial to recognize the hidden dangers that lie beneath the charming facade of our natural surroundings! So next time you venture into your backyard and surrounding landscapes, stoop down and look around and explore nature’s hidden worlds, and if you get hungry along the way…stick to trail mix.
This article is a feature of the Alliance’s Forests for the Bats – a spooky, Halloween edition of the monthly Forests for the Bay newsletter. Learn more here.
Virginia Agriculture Projects Manager
Forests for the Bay