Poisonous Plants of WNY
Some poisonous native and cultivated plants of Western New York State.
by R. H. Zander
Curator of Botany, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, NY 14211
Notes from the Clinton Herbarium 7, September 15, 1981
Version 2, November 7, 2000
Note: This for informational purposes only, and is not meant as a guide for finding food or medicine in the wild. The Buffalo Museum of Science takes no, repeat no, responsibility for your mistakes on "eating the weeds" or do-it-yourself home doctoring.
There may be few really deadly plant species out there in the woods and field (below are some of them), but many will make you very sick if you mistakenly identify them as edible or medicinal. Be warned . . . be informed! Taking a course in plant identification at the Buffalo Museum of Science will give you a good perspective on the difficulties of accurate plant identification.
Ten of the Many Plants out there that are Poisonous to Eat
1. Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) is a very poisonous large herbaceous plant about 3 feet tall of waste places and overgrown city lots. Occasionally these plants are grown in gardens along Humboldt Parkway near the Buffalo Museum of Science. Supposedly, a tincture of the seeds is used to treat hemorrhoids (but don’t you do that! The Museum takes no, repeat no, responsibility for home medications . . . see your doctor!).
2. Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Socrates (remember the ancient Greek who taught "know thyself"?) is said to have died from drinking a potion of this plant, which looks like wild parsley. It’s about 3 feet tall. Do you know why Socrates died?
3. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Although the young shoots of this 4 to 5 foot tall plant are eaten in the early spring (as "poke salad"), the older plant and especially its roots are deadly poisonous. The purple fruit has a red juice that stains the fingers and clothes . . . it is slightly poisonous, so don’t eat the berries or use it as War Paint!
4. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) has edible ripe fruit but the leaves and roots are deadly. The leaves of this 1-2 foot tall plant of deep woods are like little umbrellas.
5. False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) is a 3 to 4 foot tall plant found in wet areas in deep woods. The leaves are in three rows on the plant.
6. Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) is a vine that looks like a grape vine, but the berries are somewhat poisonous. The leafstalk is attached right at the edge of the leaf in grapes, but it is attached inside the leaf edge in moonseed.
7. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a skinny-looking tree that is common in lots and woodsy parts of Buffalo. It is in the pea family, which you can tell by the pea pods hanging from the branches after it flowers. The seeds, leaves and bark are all poisonous.
8. Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is a large fern about 2 feet tall that grows at the margins of deep woods. There is a lot of it around Allegany State Park south of Buffalo. The three-parted leaves are distinctive. The raw plant produces vitamin B-12 deficiency because it has an enzyme that destroyed that vitamin.
9. Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a distinctive plant about 1 foot tall of deep woods. The root is very poisonous because of its high oxalic acid content.
10. White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) is a common species in the aster family that grows at the edges of deep woods or even city lots. It is about 2 or 3 feet tall and has white flowers. Cows concentrate a toxic substance in their milk if they graze on this plant. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is said to have died from white snakeroot poison in the milk she drank.
11. Bitter Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a common vine found in back yards that has red berries that are slightly poisonous. Kids eat them often and the rule of thumb is less than 10 berries will probably not hurt (don’t trust any rule of thumb . . . see a doctor), but better get out the stomach pump if more than 10 are eaten (yes, see a doctor)!
Three plants you should know that are poisonous to touch
12. Poison Ivy (Rhus radicans) is sometimes a vine, sometimes an herb, and sometimes a good-sized bush! The sap causes rashes in about half of the population. There are tree leaflets on each leaf. The leaves are alternate on the stem. The berries are white.
13. Poison Sumac (Rhus vernix) looks like an ash tree but has alternate leaves (the leaves of the ash are opposite each other). (What? You don’t know the difference between alternate and opposite leaves? Take a course in plant identification at the Buffalo Museum of Science.) This species has beautiful red and yellow leaves in the autumn, which are often collected by people, half of whom get a bad rash like poison ivy. The berries are white (not red as in the harmless Staghorn Sumac that is common along our roads).
14. Nettles (Urtica species). These plants grow in wet areas in woods and are about 2 to 3 feet tall. Stinging hairs are on the stems and are each filled with formic acid, the active ingredient in ant stings!
Eight important cultivated & ornamental poisonous plant species
15. Cherry, Peach and Plum (Prunus species) have leaves and pits in their fruit that have small amounts of cyanide (yes, cyanide) in them. Do not save peach or plum pits and eat, say, a cupful all at once!
16. Hydrangea (Hydrangea species) is a bush common in peoples yards. The twigs and leaves contain cyanide. Don’t cook weenies on sticks made of hydrangea branches!
17. Castor Bean (Ricinus communis) is sometimes called "instant tree" because it grows into a 10 foot tall bush in one growing season (though winter kills it). It is often planted in gardens, but the seeds contain one of the most poisonous substances known, ricinin. Castor oil is obtained from the seeds by pressing but the poison is not soluble in the oil. If you eat the seeds instead of taking a spoonful of the oil, say goodbye! This is not a medicine.
18. Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) are ornamental plants often sold at Christmastime as "Orange Plant" for their pretty berries. The berries, however, are poisonous. Not a good Christmas gift!
19. Apple (Malus pumila). Yes, the common edible apple has pits that have small amounts of cyanide. What other plants have cyanide? Don’t save a cupful of apple pits and eat them all at once.
20. Jequirity or Rosary Bean (Abrus precatorius) is a vine that grown in tropical and sub-tropical areas. It is a native of Africa but is now found in Florida. The red and black seeds are used for beads, and are often found in necklaces and doll’s eyes made for children in southern lands. Like the castor bean, the jequirity bean contains one of the most poisonous substances known, abrin. One seed, thoroughly chewed, can kill a child.
21. Potato (Solanum tuberosum) has tubers that are great to eat but the leaves have a lot of slightly poisonous alkaloids in them. This is the case with many plants in the nightshade family (potato, eggplant, green pepper, tomato). In some countries, varieties of potato have more alkaloids in them than are allowed by law in the U.S.A., and green parts of these kinds of potatoes can make one pretty sick if eaten.
22. Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens). The berries of this Christmastime ornamental plant are poisonous. Say, notice that mistletoe is spelled with an e at the end and potato is spelled without a final e? Is this governed by the rules of spelling? Good scientists should be able to spell good so they can communicate well.
Some of the most poisonous of any plant species are among the fungi. The Death Angel and its fungal relatives kill many people each year. Do not eat any fungi you find in the woods unless you are an expert in their identification . . . and you must learn to be a real expert who learned mushroom identification as taught by another expert.