September is a great month for wild fruits and berries; the sloes from the Blackthorn make great gin, berries from the Elder tree are good for homemade wine and jam and almost everyone is familiar with blackberries, with many a small child (and adult) coming home with purple faces and scratched arms after forays into the local bramble patches.
But Britain is also home to plants which yield very poisonous fruits, especially at this time of the year and it is so important that would-be foragers and gatherers can accurately identify what they are collecting. As always, the rule of thumb is if you are not absolutely certain about a berry or fruit, DO NOT put it near your mouth (or anyone else’s), even if birds and insects seem to be munching them quite happily.
One plant that many people have heard of but fewer have actually seen is Deadly Nightshade (or Belladonna). Often confused with Woody Nightshade (or Bittersweet), which is not helped by many inaccurate internet pages showing the wrong identification. It is important to note that the berries of both are poisonous.
The berries of Deadly Nightshade start off green and ripen to a shiny black, with each berry on an individual stalk whereas the Woody Nightshade berries go bright red and hang in clusters. Woody Nightshade berries tend to be very bitter, while Deadly Nightshade may be sweeter.
The clue to the toxicity of Deadly Nightshade lies in the name. Consumption of the berries could induce many symptoms including, but not limited to; hallucinations, delirium, irregular heartbeat and severely dry mouth, eventually leading to convulsions, coma and death. Definitely not one to have on the menu for the Wild Survivor.
Lords & Ladies:
The wild Arum Lily is known by many different names, including Lords-and-Ladies, Cuckoo-Pint and apparently Naked Girls and Naked Boys among others, most of them all referring to the plants resembling human genital parts – both male and female. While this might bring on some schoolboy sniggers, ingest them and you probably won’t be laughing.
A ground covering plant that grows wild across the UK and is also cultivated by gardeners. It favours shady wooded spots. In the autumn its foliage dies back, leaving conspicuous stalks of bright orange and red berries. They might be attractive to look at as they add flashes of colour to undergrowth and garden borders but eat their berries and you can expect irritation of the mouth, tongue and throat, leading to swelling, burning pain, difficulty breathing and a very unhappy stomach.
However, they apparently have an acrid taste and cause a tingling sensation in the mouth which stops most people consuming enough to cause serious harm. Watch out when you have loose toddlers around these plants as they are attractively bright and enticingly within reach of small people.
There are many variations of this pretty climbing plant and each type varies in how poisonous it’s red (sometimes black) berries are – some may not be poisonous at all but very little is known about the differences and the effects so best to steer clear. While generally not considered to be in the same bracket of danger as the plants above, they can still cause mild to severe stomach upsets and discomfort.
Of course, this is just a snapshot of some of the berries you could currently find in local hedgerows and woodland, there are many more potentially toxic plants and berries throughout the UK and throughout the year. If you would like to know more about our wild plants why not enrol on a short course.
The ONLY way to treat potential poisoning by ingestion of wild plants is to get the affected person to hospital immediately along with enough of the plant (leaves, stalks, roots, berries and flowers) to identify it so that medics have the best chance of treating the patient effectively.
Want to learn more about what you can and can’t eat in the wild? Join us on our new Foraging and Cookery courses and learn to survive in the wild! Click here for more information.