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July 10th, 2013 HALEY MARTIN | Headout
 

Headout: Deadliest Pick

Not all berries are good. Here’s a guide to the bad ones.

headout_3936Illustrations by Mia Nolting

The third annual Oregon Berry Festival is upon us. It’s a great celebration of one of Oregon’s favorite agricultural products. Yet danger lurks. While the festival’s simple slogan encourages you to “eat your berries,” it’s not quite that easy. The Pacific Northwest is home to many berries you do not want to eat, including some that can kill you. Be careful out there.


Baneberry

(Actaea rubra)

Deadliness factor: High

Baneberries grow in clusters low to the ground and are glossy red when ripe or greenish when unripe. They may have only three to four berries. Do not be fooled by their small numbers: People have died from baneberries. The first symptoms are blistering and burning of the mouth and throat, which graduates to nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Does your stomach hurt? Did you recently eat a berry?


Bittersweet nightshade
(Solanum dulcamara)

Deadliness factor: High

Nightshade berries are translucent red ovoids that grow on a creeping vine with heart-shaped leaves.  Alkaloids like those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms are toxic and potentially lethal. Eat them and you may start tripping…toward a painful death. Intense thirst, blurred vision, headaches, nausea, fever and high blood pressure follow. Do not huff nightshade: Inhaling too much of the fragrance can cause symptoms.


Elderberry
(Sambucus)

Deadliness factor: Moderate

Maybe you’ve eaten elderberries before. They’re safe, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. While blue and black elderberries are always edible, uncooked red berries contain cyanide-inducing glycosides, which your body metabolizes into poisonous cyanide. In large quantities, this may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Have you ever grilled a steak that was supposed to be medium but instead turned out medium rare? Watch out.


Lantana, or red sage
(Lantana camara)

Deadliness factor: Mild

You can eat these when they ripen into little blue berries. But the unripe green berries are poisonous. Have you ever bought a piece of fruit at the grocery store thinking it was ripe only to discover it wasn’t? Also, horses, sheep and goats like to eat lantana berries, but they will die. Common symptoms to watch for in animals include depression, vomiting, diarrhea and weakness. Is your goat depressed?


Pokeweed
(Phytolacca americana)

Deadliness factor: Mild

Ripe pokeweed berries sort of look like massive, oblong blackberries. In the South, people sometimes eat the plant. Not so fast. Pokeweed berries are considered toxic, though  Southerners eat parts of the plant after cooking them three times, and they are used carefully in folk and alternative medicine. They will give you a terrible stomach ache and have killed children. 


Beautyberry
(Callicarpa americana)

Deadliness factor: Mild

First thing to know about this berry: They’re not actually berries but tiny drupes, which are a type of fruit. And while the little pink or ruby berries are beautiful, they are also toxic when eaten in large quantities.


GO: The Oregon Berry Festival is at the Ecotrust Building, 721 NW 9th Ave., oregonberryfestival.com. Noon-6 pm Friday and 11 am-4:30 pm Saturday, July 12-13. Free.

Correction: "Deadliest Pick" contained several erroneously over-cautious statements about the dangers of wild berries. Elderberry berries do not have poisonous cyanide-inducing glycosides, nor do the flowers, though every other part of the plant does. Black and blue elderberries are safe to eat uncooked. Solanum dulcamara can be safely inhaled. WW nevertheless maintains that anyone interested in foraging should consult a published field guide or purchase berries from a supermarket, established farmer's market stand or reputable U-Pick.
 
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