Beware — Some plants are pretty yet deadly

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — Not all pretty plants, or plants with pretty flowers or seeds, are friendly. In specific cases, the seeds or the entire plant from leaves to roots to fruits may be deadly. The toxicity range can be mild to severe with death being an outcome for the unwary. In the realm of Mother Nature’s “nastiest” plants, pokeweed fits right in as a plant to avoid. Is it common? Yes. Should one be able to recognize it? Yes, indeed. Do birds who eat the little pokeweed berries seem to be adversely affected? No. The conclusion we humans need to take away from this issue of Outdoors Today is this: plant chemistry is amazingly complex. Thankfully, science and experience has determined the nice long list of plants that are safe to consume.

In the realm of natural history subjects that this author finds interesting, which is a huge list, therefore anything Mother Nature offers is fair game. From (A) astronomy to (Z) zebra mussels, and everything in between, life on Earth, now or prehistoric, plant or animal, including the geologic foundations of planet earth itself, are interesting subjects to explore and learn more about. Sciences that investigate these subjects offer a never ending library of exploration for lifelong learning.

So, today, for a slight change of pace, the plant world has not just a few, but many species of green growing things that may look pretty but are deceivingly deadly. Pokeweed fits this category. The scientific name is Phytolacca americana. Common names include American Pokeweed, Garnet, Pigeon Berry, Poke, Pokeberry, Scoke, or Jekyll and Hyde Plant. It is a native plant of eastern North America, the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.

My photographs show the reddish stem, large leaves and flowering bundles that produce both ripe and immature berries on the same cluster. I found the plant last week during an outdoor foray, growing along the edge of a forest. It is still there, having a height of six feet and branching reddish colored stems spread almost as wide as tall.

It is pretty. It does offer birds attractive dark purple seeds to pick off and eat. Evidently, birds eating the seeds/fruiting bodies do not suffer ill effects from the seed passing through their digestive system. Later, the seeds may be deposited as bird droppings, where a new Pokeweed may take root and grow.

Pokeweed does offer a photographic subject with good eye appeal. Curious people in the past have also noted this plant and have even dug up its root to find a large turnip-like growth of four or more inches in diameter and over 12 inches long.

Beware: all parts of this plant are poisonous! Harmful chemicals lurk inside. Science has found the toxicity levels to increase as this plant matures. Pokeweed contains phytolaccine, a powerful irritant that can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms in humans and mammals. Birds are largely unaffected.

As an aside and an observation of how some plants came to be known for their pharmaceutical attributes, good or bad, I would have hated to be the test person long ago when a supposed friend said “eat this.” So if I did and got deathly sick from it, and died, all the others observing

my death anguish, would know to stay away from that plant.

If the ‘experiment’ resulted in a softening or ‘cure’ for what ailed me, that knowledge could be remembered and passed down through word of mouth and future generations to become a folk medicine. American Indians had a wealth of knowledge of plants and how to use them to treat health symptom scenarios.

On the other hand, once that piece of adverse plant physiology knowledge was known, spear tips or arrow heads could be dipped into a liquid concoction made from that plant. Any enemy would pay the price from even a tiny cut. Even today, arrows of native peoples in some portions of Africa, South America, or Asia, can and do use poisons from plants, or even frog skin excretions, to kill game food animals, or enemies.

American soils grow lots of different plants. Here is a short list of the top 8 deadliest plants, according to askprepper.com. (1) Water Hemlock, also known as Poison Parsnip, is the most poisonous plant in North America. Even a small mouthful can kill an adult. The entire plant is poisonous, but the root is the deadliest. (2) Deadly Nightshade has nasty chemicals. It was used as a poison in the year 68 AD to kill Roman emperor Claudius, and the Scots were said to have killed the Danish army by leaving them a tribute of barrels of beer, laced with nightshade. (3) Castor Oil plant has a toxin called ricin. This plant is the Guinness holder of the fastest death. (4) White Snakeroot is credited with causing the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother at age 34 and others during the 19th century. It had a name called “milk sickness” as cattle that ate this plant became tainted both in their meat or milk. (5) Rosary Pea, a plant native to Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, had berries that resembled rosary beads. Strung together it looked good. However, the pods contain the toxin abrin, which is now known to impair protein synthesis and cell death. (6) on the list is Pokeweed, already discussed. (7) is Wolfsbane, also known as Blue Rocket, Monkshood, Devils Helmet and Queen of all poisons. This plant has been documented and used for centuries in assassination plots and warfare. Its chemicals were used to coat the surfaces of swords and arrows. Greeks used it on the tips of their javelins before going to war. Last (8) on this list is Poison Hemlock, different from water hemlock, which can be found throughout North America. It was used as an execution tool. Greek philosopher Socrates died after drinking a cup of poison hemlock.

Other plants with potential nasty outcomes are as follows: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Giant Hogweed, Poison Sumac, Wild parsnip, Death Camas, White Hellebore, Mountain Laurel, Oleander, Foxglove, Monkshood, White Baneberry, Corn Cockle, Larkspur, Jimson Weed, Angel’s Trumpet, Wild Poinsettia, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Iris, Daffodil, Castor Bean, Stinging Nettle and Manchineel.


September is a transition month, or the beginning of seasonal changes, as fall brings cooler temperatures and shorter days. On Sept 1, the day length was 13 hours and 10 minutes. By month’s end day length will be only 11 hours and 49 minutes, a loss of 1 hour and 21 minutes. In just twelve days, the Autumnal equinox will happen on Sept. 22. Shorter days are becoming noticeable.

Plants are taking note of the season changes to come. Birds are migrating in ever increasing numbers. Farm crops are ripening. Trees are beginning to shut down but will not reach full leaf color until mid-October. The earth’s orbital pathway around the sun continues unabated.

Birds making a big push to depart during September will include Broadwinged hawks, Swainson’s hawk, King Rails, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Terns, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Black-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Eastern nighthawk, Chimney Swifts, Kingbirds, Northern Crested Flycatchers, Bank Swallows, Rough-winged Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Purple Martins, Red-eyed Vireos, about every variety of warbler of which there are many — Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Bunting, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, and White Throated Sparrow.

September is a good month to plant trees, especially conifer types. Several hunting seasons have started for squirrels and rabbits. Youth and disabled deer hunters can enjoy their opener on Sept. 17. Urban deer bow hunts also begin on Sept. 17, and in northern Iowa counties, late September will see the beginning of leaf color changes.

Historical notes for this month include a 2016 earthquake rated at 6.6 centered in Oklahoma that was felt in Iowa on Sept. 3. In the year 1909, eastern Iowa felt an earthquake, for which I do not have the data of its epicenter.

On Sept. 28, 1953, Glenwood recorded an air temp of 103 degrees. A one day precipitation record was set in 1926 near Boyden with 21.7 inches of rain, and on Sept. 16, 1881, the earliest snowfall happened in western Iowa with six inches. The first average killing frosts can be expected in northern Iowa on or about the 23rd.


The Izaak Walton League will host a membership appreciation supper on Sept. 14. Smoked pork loin will be one meat item already cooked by member Ed Moore. Members can bring their choice of meat to grill and a side dish of some type to share with everyone on the food table aisle. The time for this event will be 6 p.m. Any Ikes member and family is invited. Guests and prospective members are also welcome. Come see the Ikes grounds, pond, ranges and Christmas tree areas.


On a personal note, on this date in 2001, I was well into recovery from colon cancer surgery. I was at the Marshalltown hospital watching television when the twin towers of New York City were destroyed by terrorists. Now, 21 years later, I remember both situations vividly.


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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