Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't eat the blue fruits, unless you're certain

I am amazed at how many trailside plants I'd missed earlier in the year.  They were there, but I just didn't notice them.

Now that most of the leaves are down, you can't miss their bright fruits.

This time of the year, most of the fruits are blue or black, with the exception of the rose hips (edible), and the white poison ivy and gray dogwood berries (both great for birds, but not for humans).

As a general rule - if you don't know for certain, don't eat wild fruits, especially the white and red.  
Poison Ivy  Toxicodendron radicans

Gray Dogwood  Cornus racemosa

Be careful with the blue fruits too.  This time of year they can be mistaken for wild grapes.   

 Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) 

The Canada Moonseed fruits really fooled me.   I thought they were grapes and popped on into my mouth, and spit it right out (they are toxic) after I realized the seed wasn't grape-like.

Under the skin of the Canada Moonseed was a single crescent-shaped seed which looks like someone took a bite out of the moon.  Thus the name.

Moonseed is classified as a drupe, a fruit with a single hard stone which encloses the seed.  Peaches, cherries, olives and coffee are edibe drupes.

Botanically speaking, the fruits of the grape are berries - with 2-6 seeds.  These fleshy fruits are formed as the entire ovary wall ripens into an edible pericarp.  Tomatoes and eggplants are also classified as "berries."  

I remember the Moonseed flowers and leaves from early summer.  The leaves resemble grapes - but they are smooth, not toothed along the margins.

The leaf attachments are different too.  Unlike most vines, the stem of the Moonseed leaf attaches on the underside.

Moonseed also has a different way of attaching to their "supports."  They climb by twining around.  Unlike grapes, they have no tendrils to help them hold on.

 Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea)

Smooth Carrion Flower is another fruit that seems to be every where these days.  One of a half-dozen or so "briers" found in Wisconsin, the fruits of the smilax are edible, but before you bite, consider its common name.  The flowers produce an unpleasant "carrion-like" odor to attract fly pollinators.

Virginia Creeper  Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia Creeper vines are easy to identify before they drop their 5 palmately compound, toothed leaves.  But now that their leaves are gone, they can be mistaken for a grape.  Be careful, creeper fruits contain oxalic acid, which can be fatal to mammals (including humans) when eaten.  Good news:  the berries taste bad, a clue to their toxicity.  If you accidentally eat one, spit it out!

Common Buckthorn  Rhamnus cathartia

Don't be tempted by Buckthorn either.  This invasive shrub that's filling the understory and crowding out our native species, is another blue-fruit-to-avoid.  The glossy, almost black fruits growing out from the leaf axils are toxic to humans.  The bitter-tasting fruits were used by early Anglo-Saxons as a laxative.   From what I've read, eating one is not likely to make you feel "better."

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