Poisonous Plants and Beautiful Birds


(This 948th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 24, 2009.)




When I was a youngster I read a novel about a teenaged boy lost in the Amazonian jungle. To survive he had to eat but he was afraid that some of the plants might be poisonous. Aha, he thought, I will just watch what the birds and animals eat and follow their lead. At the time I read that book I considered that very smart of the boy and indeed it served him well making his way back to civilization.


I retained that bit of childhood nature lore until many years later I watched a pair of pileated woodpeckers dine on the berries of a poison ivy vine. So much for watching the birds and animals.


Now we have a delightful little book that extends these problems of wild botany. It is Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants: the Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother and other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin). I write about it now because Ms. Stewart will talk about her book at Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street in Buffalo at 7 p.m., this Wednesday, May 27. If she is as much fun as her trailer suggests, her talk should be richly entertaining as well as informative.


This book is cautionary. Ms. Stewart tells us: "We would never pick up a discarded coffee cup from the sidewalk and drink from it, but on a hike we'll nibble unfamiliar berries as if they were placed there for our appetites alone. We'll brew a medicinal tea from unrecognizable bark and leaves that a friend passes along assuming that anything natural must be safe. And when a baby comes home, we rush to add safety caps to electrical outlets but ignore the houseplant in the kitchen and the shrub by the front door - this in spite of the fact that 3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets while 68,847 are poisoned by plants."


And some of her stories are indeed tragic. She tells of children making a sandwich of wild greens (confusing poison hemlock for parsley) for their father and being forced to watch him pass through paralysis to death. Of a 19th century servant sent out to dig up horseradish for a sauce ingredient, mistakenly uprooting monkshood, the error resulting in the deaths of two dinner guests. Of the demise of Nancy Hanks – President Lincoln's mother – from milk contaminated by white snakeroot.


Read this book and you'll be able to enliven diner conversation with tidbits like the alternate name belladonna (beautiful woman) for deadly nightshade deriving from the use of a tincture of the plant to dilate women's eyes.


Included are brief introductions to a litany of plants: some deadly, others illegal, intoxicating, dangerous, painful, destructive and offensive. Despite the subject matter, this is still an interesting and even entertaining read for we all love the villains of our world.


The most important of Ms. Stewart's warnings: Teach small children not to put plants, including houseplants, in their mouths.




As a major activity related to its 100 year celebration of it namesake's birth, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown is sponsoring a Birding Festival from June 4-7. Peterson's first bird guide, published in 1934, revolutionized birding and opened the activity to the millions who enjoy it today.


The Festival offers birders of this region an opportunity to meet a number of the finest field ornithologists of this nation, including authors Pete Dunne and Kenn Kaufman. Also there will be Lang Elliott, whose records of bird calls are widely used both for identification and even attracting birds.


In addition to these national figures some of our best regional birders will be there, among them: Tim Baird, Terry Mosher and Tom LeBlanc. Jim Berry is the Institute director.


The major focus of the associated field birding will be on the 28 nesting warbler species of the region. Of them, 17, like blue-winged warbler, are certain to be seen. Six others, like Canada warbler, are present but may not be found; and five more, like Kentucky warbler and yellow-breasted chat, are even more rare. Knowing the quality of the field observers, I predict that at least two dozen of these species will be found.


For more Festival information call 800-758-6841, email birdingfestival@RTPI.org or visit the institute website.-- Gerry Rising