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Miss Floribunda: Beware of berry-bearing bushes

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Posted on: November 11, 2021

Dear Miss Floribunda,

 

My neighbor’s toddler recently was nabbed by his older brothers picking red berries from a volunteer bush in their yard. The berries were confiscated, and it seems maybe only one berry was actually eaten, because the baby didn’t get sick. I sent you a picture of a branch with berries, which you identified as bush honeysuckle. You said it was “mildly poisonous.” It seems we are at a time of year when there are a lot of berries on bushes. Although birds seem to eat them and thrive, I worry about little children who might be attracted to them. What should parents look out for? 

 

Afraid, Berry Afraid on Farragut Street,

 

Dear Afraid, Berry Afraid,

Fortunately, the bush honeysuckle berries don’t taste as good as they look, and a child with a normal sense of taste is unlikely to eat enough to get sick. If a child eats a quantity of berries, vomiting and other evacuation would likely cleanse the system. However, I think the parents should dig up and discard the bush for another reason. Bush honeysuckle harbors deer ticks, and these can transmit Lyme disease, which is extremely serious. Parents who have bush honeysuckle in their yards should check their children at bath time for small black spots — especially around the midriff, arms and scalp — and if a tick is found it should be carefully removed with tweezers. If in a few days a red ring develops around the spot where the tick was attached, the child should be taken to the doctor for testing as soon as possible. 

Other plants have berries that are more poisonous, but few are as alluring as the bush honeysuckle. The berries on holly and pyracantha are almost as pretty, but, fortunately, spiky leaves or thorns will repel little fingers. 

If you grow lilies of the valley, you ought to remove their very poisonous red berries if your children are too young to warn. 

American bittersweet and cotoneaster, which produce flame-colored berries in fall, also should be kept clipped until children reach the age of reason. 

Poison ivy forms berries about this time of year, but they are a dull, unappetizing grayish white, and children tend to be attracted to the color red. Fortunately, most poisonous berries are not red. However, pokeweed berries could be of concern, because although the berries are black, they are born on bright pink stems, and like the honeysuckle berries, they are shiny and plump. They are considerably more poisonous than the honeysuckle berries, but one berry sampled wouldn’t do more than cause a stomachache. 

Again, most poisonous berries taste bad. The exception is deadly nightshade, which fortunately I haven’t seen in our area. 

Still other berries that are pretty but nontoxic are the porcelain berries that have proliferated in our area, thanks to the seed-spreading of birds. Pink, blue and mauve, these berries look like candy, but their taste and texture are actually unpleasant to humans. 

Why would poisonous berries not taste good? They don’t taste good for the same reason they are poisonous. The idea is to repel animals and protect the plant. Why are birds seemingly immune to these poisons? Without getting into the complex subject of physiology, let’s just say that Mother Nature wants to encourage birds to eat the fruit and spread the seeds.

Of course, I consulted my cousin Moribunda. She pointed out that adults are also at risk. For example, the poisonous berries of Virginia creeper resemble those of wild grapes. While some people can’t go near Virginia creeper without getting a rash, others might pick the berries with impunity and then make the mistake of tasting them. 

Additionally, elderberries are not safe to eat unless cooked. Because they make excellent jam as well as a syrup to treat colds, many people may assume they can eat them raw. That would be a painful mistake. Moribunda insisted that I include the following link to help identify poisonous plants in our area: extension.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2021-03/EB314_PoisonousPlantsMD.pdf.

 

Please come to the Hyattsville Horticultural Society’s holiday wreath-making workshop on Nov. 17 at the home of Mary Jane Stevens and Robert Meyer (3925 Nicholson Street). Following the  brief 10 a.m. meeting, accomplished wreath makers will show you how to embellish your doors and tabletops for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Please bring plant cuttings and other decorative materials to incorporate into your wreath.

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