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Foraging Toxic Plants

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Many gardeners & foragers are concerned about toxic plants.

In fact, we get a lot of inquiries about toxic plants and other potential dangers in the garden.

But, nothing has been as scary as this message from one of our clients (paraphrasing):

Do you know what these plants are? My friend’s kids ate/played ‘yummy tacos’ with them and now he’s puffy and uncomfortable.

Was it toxic plants taco tuesday for this kid?

Accompanying her question was a photo of Bergenia cordifolia (shown below). indicates this plant isn’t toxic to humans. And, some sites discussed how some of its parts are used in Ayurvedic medicine. But, other sites put it on the list of plants toxic to dogs. Too, most acknowledge that deer and bunnies avoid it. But, slugs and weevils sure do chew it up.

Bergenia: a toxic plant or not?

At what point do we decide to cross a dangerous plant off our design list?

It isn’t uncommon for clients to request “no dangerous or toxic plants” in their design. But at what level of toxicity makes a plant truly undesirable?

For instance, one of my best friends went on a road trip through the southwest. And, when she returned home, she said she was surprised the trip didn’t kill her dog. That’s because her puppy got all sorts of spines and needles up her nose while sniffing around. Too, my friend even impaled her calf with some sort of hard, spiny plant. And, that needle went in one side of her calf and out the other. So, thank goodness it wasn’t coated in poison!

So, does an issue like spines or mild poison make a plant risky enough to omit?

The answer may come down to where you’re gardening. And, your choice may be impacted by who is spending time in your yard. For some, the potential that a kid might make and serve Bergenia tacos to his dog might mean that plant that plant’s out.

And, what about wild, potentially toxic plants that pop up?

How do you plan for mushrooms that bloom in your mulch? Or, silica-rich horsetail that’s been around since the dinosaurs? And, do you rip out delicious, nutritious, medicinal elderberries because they can also be toxic plants?

Morel mushroom

Morels are a fantastic fungal surprise. Just don’t EVER eat them raw & don’t eat any mushroom that you haven’t ID’d 100%!

At some point in human history, one of our ancestors had to be the first taste testers for us. But today, no toddler’s mommy or puppy’s daddy can keep an eye on their kids 24:7:365. So, just because a plant has the potential to be harmful, it might take an awful lot of it to send you screaming to the hospital.

Of course, a mushroom might do you in, but a dog snapping a rhodie twig in half probably won’t ingest nearly enough to make Fido croak. More likely, Spot will choke on a splinter from his fetching stick.

Does it make sense to scare kids away from eating everything they encounter outdoors?

As an example, my nephew shared with me that he learned about native plants in summer camp. And, he was emphatic that they had  he should never, ever eat Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) berries because they aren’t really grapes.

Mahonia Oregon Grape Berries

Should we be teaching children to be afraid of eating ALL plants’ berries, even these?

So, I tried explaining that these “grapes” are actually edible. Plus, they have been an important part of indigenous peoples’ diets. Moreover, this plant is incredibly medicinal. But, even after I’d told him that I had eaten these fruits, he continued to fight me because his teacher had to be right. So he’s been scared off of those not-grapes, perhaps for good.

Given what I learned went into the toxic plant tacos…

I wonder if it might be better having kids fear wild foods they don’t fully understand. At least this way they won’t think they can browse randomly from the wilds of their neighborhood gardens and parks. The reality is: some kids learn to differentiate fast, but apparently that isn’t the case for all of them.

However, after texting back and forth with my client about those toxic tacos, it turns out the fillings may have been the real problem for these kids. That’s because they had wrapped those Bergenia big pig squeak leaves around a concoction of Euphorbia. And, has a sap that can cause chemical burns. Plus, they had topped their poison tacos with beautiful, red Cotoneaster berries, which are toxic plants. And these berries are known to cause gastritis in humans.

Yipes! That’s a double-stuffed, toxic plant taco medley!

The latest update on the little backyard foragers: Our little garden-to-table chef has medically trained parents. So, they made a trip to the doctor’s office for a complete check-up following his poor “farm-fresh” menu choices. And, the Euphorbia is the suspected culprit of multiple health issues he and his snack-mates are fighting, with steroids.

Hopefully, he’s learned his lesson about random foraging. And, word is the kids are expected to make a full recovery.

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