Beware: Some Plants Are Pretty But Deadly | News, Sports, Jobs

GARRY BRANDENBURG PHOTOS — Not all pretty plants, or plants with pretty flowers or seeds, are friendly. In specific cases, the seeds or the entire plant, from leaves to roots to fruit, can be deadly. The range of toxicity can be mild to severe and death is a result for the unwary. In Mother Nature’s kingdom of “nastiest” plants, pokeweed fits right in as a plant to avoid. It is common? Yes. Should one be able to recognize it? Yes actually. Do birds that eat the tiny pokeweed berries seem to be negatively affected? No. The conclusion we humans should draw from this issue of Outdoors Today is this: plant chemistry is amazingly complex. Fortunately, science and experience have determined the long list of plants that are safe to consume.

In the realm of natural history topics this author finds interesting, which is a huge list, therefore anything Mother Nature offers is fair game. From (A) astronomy to (Z) zebra mussels and everything in between, life on Earth, current or prehistoric, plant or animal, including the geological foundations of planet Earth itself, are exciting topics to explore and learn more about. The sciences that investigate these topics offer an endless library of exploration for lifelong learning.

So today, for a slight change of pace, the plant world has not just a few, but many species of green things growing that may look pretty but are deceptively deadly. Pokeweed fits into this category. The scientific name is Phytolacca americana. Common names include American Pokeweed, Garnet, Pigeon Berry, Poke, Pokeberry, Scoke, or Jekyll and Hyde Plant. It is a plant native to eastern North America, the Midwest, and the Gulf Coast.

My photographs show the reddish stem, large leaves, and flower clusters that produce ripe and unripe berries on the same cluster. I found the plant last week during a foray outdoors, growing along the edge of a forest. It’s still there, standing six feet tall with branching reddish stems that spread almost as wide as they are tall.

It’s nice. Offers attractive dark purple seeds for birds to pick up and eat. Obviously, birds that eat the seeds/fruiting bodies are not adversely affected by the passage of the seed through their digestive system. Later, the seeds can be deposited as bird droppings, where a new pokeweed can take root and grow.

Pokeweed offers a photo theme with good visual appeal. Curious people in the past have also noticed this plant and even dug up its root to find a large turnip-like growth four or more inches in diameter and over 12 inches long.

Beware: all parts of this plant are poisonous! Harmful chemicals lurk inside. Science has found that toxicity levels increase as this plant matures. Pokeweed contains phytolacin, a powerful irritant that can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms in humans and mammals. Birds are largely unaffected.

As an aside and an observation of how some plants came to be known for their pharmaceutical attributes, good or bad, long ago I wish I had been the test person when a so-called friend said “eat this”. So if I did and got deathly ill from it, and died, everyone else watched

my anguish of death, I would know how to get away from that plant.

If the ‘experiment’ resulted in a softening or ‘cure’ of what ailed me, that knowledge could be remembered and passed on by word of mouth to future generations to become folk medicine. The American Indians had a great knowledge of plants and how to use them to treat scenarios of health symptoms.

On the other hand, once such adverse knowledge of plant physiology was known, spearheads or arrowheads could be immersed in a liquid concoction made from that plant. Any enemy would pay the price for even a small cut. Even today, the arrows of native peoples in some parts of Africa, South America, or Asia can and do use plant poisons, or even frog skin excretions, to kill game or enemy animals.

Many different plants grow on American soils. Here is a short list of the 8 deadliest plants, according to (1) Water Hemlock, also known as Poison Parsnip, is the most poisonous plant in North America. Even a small bite can kill an adult. The entire plant is poisonous, but the root is the deadliest. (2) Deadly Nightshade has nasty chemicals. It was used as a poison in AD 68 to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, and the Scots are said to have killed the Danish army by leaving them a tribute of beer barrels laced with belladonna. (3) The castor oil plant has a toxin called ricin. This plant is the Guinness holder of the fastest death. (4) White Snakeroot is credited with causing the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother at age 34 and others during the 19th century. It had a name called “milk disease”, since cattle that ate this plant became contaminated in both their meat and their milk. (5) Rosary Pea, a plant native to Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, had berries that looked like rosary beads. Skewered looked good. However, the pods contain the toxin abrin, which is now known to affect protein synthesis and cell death. (6) Listed is Pokeweed, already discussed. (7) is Wolfsbane, also known as Blue Rocket, Monkshood, Devils Helmet and Queen of all poisons. This plant has been documented and used for centuries in plots of assassination and warfare. Its chemicals were used to coat the surfaces of swords and arrows. The Greeks used it on the points of their javelins before going to war. Last (8) on this list is Poison Hemlock, different from Water Hemlock, which can be found throughout North America. It was used as an execution tool. The Greek philosopher Socrates died after drinking a cup of poison hemlock.

Other plants with possible unpleasant results include: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Giant Hogweed, Poison Sumac, Wild Parsnip, Death Camas, White Hellebore, Mountain Laurel, Oleander, Foxglove, Monkshood, White Baneberry, Corn Cockle, Larkspur, Jimson Weed , Angel Trumpet, Wild Poinsettia, Pulpit Pumpkin, Iris, Daffodil, Castor Bean, Nettle and Manchineel.


September is a month of transition, or the beginning of seasonal changes, as fall brings cooler temperatures and shorter days. On September 1, the length of the day was 13 hours and 10 minutes. At the end of the month, the length of the day will be only 11 hours and 49 minutes, a loss of 1 hour and 21 minutes. In just twelve days, the fall equinox will occur on September 22. Shorter days are being noted.

Plants are taking note of the upcoming seasonal changes. Birds are migrating in increasing numbers. Agricultural crops are maturing. Trees are starting to close up but won’t reach full leaf color until mid-October. The orbital path of the earth around the sun continues unabated.

Birds that will make a big push to depart during September will include broad-winged hawks, Swainson’s hawks, rails, greater yellow-legs, common terns, yellow-billed cuckoos, black-billed cuckoos, eastern nightjars, eastern nightjars, chimney, tyrants, northern crested flycatchers, bank swallows, rough-winged swallows, barn swallows, cliff swallows, purple martins, red-eyed vireos, above all varieties of warblers of which there are many: scarlet tanager, grosbeaks of rosy-breasted, indigo bunting, Dickcissel, Chapulín Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow.

September is a good month to plant trees, especially coniferous types. Several squirrel and rabbit hunting seasons have begun. Young and disabled deer hunters can enjoy its opening on September 17. Urban bow deer hunts also begin on September 17, and in northern Iowa counties, late September will see the start of leaf color changes.

Historical notes for this month include a 2016 earthquake rated 6.6 centered in Oklahoma that was felt in Iowa on September 3. In the year 1909, eastern Iowa felt an earthquake, for which I do not have the epicenter data.

On September 28, 1953, Glenwood recorded an air temperature of 103 degrees. A single-day rainfall record was set in 1926 near Boyden with 21.7 inches of rain, and on September 16, 1881, the first snowfall in western Iowa occurred at six inches. The first average deadly frosts can be expected in northern Iowa around the 23rd.


The Izaak Walton League will host a member appreciation dinner on September 14th. The smoked pork tenderloin will be a meat item already cooked by member Ed Moore. Members can bring their choice of grilled meat and some type of side dish to share with everyone in the food table aisle. The time for this event will be at 6 pm Any member of Ikes and her family are invited. Guests and prospective members are also welcome. Come see the Ikes grounds, pond, ranges, and Christmas tree areas.


On a personal note, on this date in 2001, he was well recovered from colon cancer surgery. He was in the Marshalltown hospital watching television when terrorists destroyed the twin towers in New York City. Now, 21 years later, I vividly remember both situations.


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Board of Conservation. He graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife biology.

Contact him at:

post office box 96

Albion, IA 50005

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