Were those marigold bits Jane Pauley was chomping on the other morning on the "Today Show?" Was it a sugared pansy petal? Whichever, she said it was "delicious," even if her expression made the pronouncement sound a little forced.
Never mind. If the folks on the "Today Show" want to eat pansies and marigolds and drink gardenia-flavored punch, well, chalk it up to different strokes and the like.
But the precedent for eating plants and flowers may not be an altogether wise one. Back to nature may sound nifty in terms of escaping potentially dangerous artificial flavorings, colorings and preservatives, but Mother Nature has a mean streak of her own sometimes, and "natural" does not guarantee that something is either good or healthy - or even better.
Jacquelyn S. Lucy of the Maryland Poison Information Center has compiled a list of common plants, indicating whether poisonous or nonpoisonous, which has been published as a public service by Giant Foods and is distributed free at their stores in the area. It's called "Please Don't Eat the Dieffenbachia!" which is a good idea because dieffenbachia's common name is not "dumbcane" for nothing. The plant can cause such irritation and swelling on the inside of the mouth that the victim is virtually rendered voiceless, at least temporarily. It's bad in the eye too, with a burning and itching that can last for days.
Lots of plants have common names like dumbcane which hint at their effect, as in some foreign names for the pesky flower we call dandelion. A legendary diuretic, it is known as pissenlit in French or pishenbed in Yiddish.
Even so, a recent issue of The Medical Letter, a nonprofit publication on drugs and treatments, indicates that ordinary tea is probably as efficacious as either the dandelion or other "natural" remedies like juniper berriers, shave grass or horsetail, all of which can have unpleasant, sometimes serious, side effects.
Lucy said last week that most of the plant-related emergency calls coming in to area poison control centers now are concerned with the berries which are popping out all over. Aside from the possible ills caused by the gluttonous overconsumption of the cultivated blues, straws and rasps, there are a few wild ones to watch out for. Those currently ubiquitous tiny wild strawberries are quite harmless, Lucy says, although they're not very good tasting. These are sometimes called "snakeberry," she notes, which is dangerous because the real snakeberry - a black and white berry - is indeed poisonous.
Cherries from the ornamental varieties and apples from the flowering crabs can also be found about this time, and, though not poisonous, they're something less than appetizing, coming as they do from trees that have been bred for their bloom rather than their fruit.Their pits, as do the pits of apricots, peaches, plums apple seeds and cassava beans, contain a compound which, after ingestion, can liberate enough hydrogen cyanide to cause severe, even fatal cyanide poisoning.
Parts of the mulberry plant are poisonous and its berries must be ripe. Pokeberries are dangerous if not prepared correctly, warns Lucy. The Health Letter notes that children have died from eating uncooked pokeberries. The root is particularly toxic, the letter says.
Effects of toxic plants are wide ranging. There are the irritants like dumbcane which cause swelling and burning on contact. In this category are such common plants as caladium, Christmas pepper, Jack-in-the-pulpit, nephthytis and philodendron.
Other plants produce gastro-intestinal symptoms - vomiting, stomach aches, diarrhea. And still others can affect liver, kidney or central nervous system functions, sometimes fatally. Usually symptoms occur right away, but sometimes the apparent effects of the poisons are delayed and it is often these that are the most dangerous.
Among the common poisonous-when-eaten plants Lucy lists are azaleas and rhododendrons, the leaves of the tomato plant, black nightshade, buttercup, castor bean, daffodil, deadly nightshade, English ivy, foxglove, fruit pits, holly, hyacinth, hydrangea, iris, Jerusalem cherry, jimson weed, lily-of-the-valley, mayapple, mistletoe, mountain laurel, pokeweed, privet, yew.
These are plants most apt to be eaten accidentally or by children.
The Health Letter also warns about potentially dangerous plants or parts of plants that can be found on sale in health food stores or health counters of grocery stores in a number of guises:
Various brands of chamomile tea, often made from flower heads, can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Licorice root has actually been known to cause cardiac arrest.
Ginseng contains estrogen. Mandrake root and snakeroot contain scopolamine and reserpine, respectively. The former is a mood-altering drug and the latter has been used to control blood pressure, but recently has been indicated as a possible carcinogen.
Sassafras root bark contains an oil that is carcinogenic in animals.
Mistletoe toxins have produced "the same effects in experimental animals as the injection of cardiotoxin from cobra venom," the Health Letter notes.
Lucy recommends that certain steps be taken when even non-poisonous plants are ingested: In all cases remove any remaining plant material from the mouth. If the plant is also an irritant, examine throat and tongue for redness or irritaion and check (with milk or water) for difficulty in swallowing. Most important, call a poison control center immediately with the patient and, if possible, a piece of the plant near the phone.
If the plant is non-poisonous she recommends that the patient be kept under close observation for any symptoms and if any occur, the poison control center should be called.
If there is any doubt about the plant, any doubt at all, she says, play it safe and call one of these poison control centers: In the D.C. area: (202) 745-2000.In the Baltimore area: (301) 528-7701. In other parts of Maryland: 1-(800) 492-2414 (toll free). In the Richmond, Va., area: (804 786-9123.
Lucy notes that many of these plants can be poisonous to animals too, and the control center often gets calls from veterinarians. If your pet shows symptoms you suspect may be from ingesting a plant, call your vet.