Plant Identification and Relationship – Happy Earth Day!
Earth Day 2019: Monday April 22nd
The Herbal Eye – Part 1
by Leah Wolfe, MPH
The sap is rising, the buds are swelling, and new shoots and leaves are springing to the surface. I’m hearing birds that I haven’t heard in a while. And those squirrels sure look skinny.
As an ever curious seeker of wild plants and mushrooms, I am happy to see familiar plants and intrigued when I find something new. I watch to see who’s up and who’s not, who lives next to who and who is off alone. Who loves the sun, and who loves the shade. What I see betrays the relationships and roles of forest dwellers, whether plant, animal, or creepy crawly.
Forests or meadows or lonely shorelines show us how community works. Each plant and animal has a role in the daily cycles and evolving state of the community. As much as we understand these roles through scientific observation, there is still an element of the magical in the ways that these systems balance themselves.
Then there are the between spaces or the edges. First there are the transitions zones between one ecosystem to another, such as the shoreline or the forest’s edge. Then there are the edges humans create, parking lots, sidewalks, factories, logging, trails, etc. These edges fill up with a class of plants often used in herbal first aid, as if these transition zones are wounds in the earth’s surface. Mostly we call them weeds.
But among these healing plants we also find poisonous plants and mushrooms. Some have medicinal uses if properly processed, but for the average hiker and forager they are best avoided. Some folks are so sensitive that touching them is enough to cause a reaction. Some plants are so poisonous they can kill.
Poisonous mushrooms have been in the news of late because they seem to be increasing in numbers, which means mushroom foragers better have good identification skills. Poisonous mushrooms shouldn’t be touched much or at all. If you are collecting mushrooms for identification only, make sure you don’t put them in the same basket as edible mushrooms. Some edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes that can only be identified with a microscope. So be careful.
The first rule of foraging whether for healing herbs or wild foods is: know the poisonous plants. To recognize earth day, springtime, and the relationship we have with plants, I offer a list of plants to be left alone either because they are rare, poisonous, or toxic.
Some of these medicinal plants can be cultivated in gardens. If you wish to use them medicinally, be sure to learn how to use them and source them from companies or herbalists who practice ethical harvesting. You will need an understanding of energetics, body constitution, and how each herbs interacts with those factors. There are also possible interactions with medications and supplements, so seek an experienced herbalist if you aren’t sure. Also, please don’t gather plants from metroparks – protect these plants and their ecosystems.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) – it is illegal to harvest this plant in most situations, unless you have permission from the owner of private property. A permit can be obtained to harvest in Wayne National Forest, but then you have to find it. More info here: https://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/portals/wildlife/pdfs/publications/laws%20&%20regs/pub007.pdf Luckily ginseng can be grown. Although the OSU factsheet below is discouraging, I have seen single plants thrive in pots. https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/F-56
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) – the Lobelia species in general are becoming more rare and have been identified as at-risk by United Plant Savers. Several species are easy to grow in gardens.
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa formerly Cimicifuga racemosa) – this plant has two look-alikes. One that has toxic red berries called red baneberry and the other has white berries with black dots earning it the name doll’s eye (classified as poisonous).
Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) – often confused with meadow rues. The cohosh plants are known as “women’s” plants but the word cohosh has been attributed to an Algonquian word meaning “rough.”
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – this plant has a blood red root, hence the name. It is most commonly used to burn warts off and is used to dry up wet respiratory conditions. Some people have skin reactions if they handle this plant with bare hands.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – this at-risk plant can often be substituted with the root bark of the invasive barberries.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) – this unusual looking plant has toxins that one source says dissipate when the plant is sliced and dried and then cured for a year. But don’t touch there are many easier wild foods to seek.
Most orchids: the most common orchid in the area (in my experience) is rattlesnake plantain. Photo:
Partridge berry (Mitchella repens) – a tiny woodlands plant with fuzzy flowers.
Ramps: These are like wild onions with wide leaves. They are native to hardwood forests. Unfortunately, they are being harvested to the point of extinction because people are digging up all of them and leaving none to grow back. Ramps should be thinned to avoid crowding, but you have to leave many for the following year. Some folks just use the leaves like green onions to not kill the plant. https://unitedplantsavers.org/ramps/
Trillium (Trillium spp.) – the way that the common white trillium grows in large patches leads people to believe that this genus is not in trouble. However, it is getting harder to come across the less common species such as the red trillium and there are many species of Trillium. :
Some Common Toxic & Poisonous Plants
Buttercups: These are have shiny yellow petals that look like melted butter, but don’t be tempted to eat them. They are toxic, causing irritation of skin and mucus membranes. A not-so-shiny relative, Celandine, can induce inflammation of the liver if used correctly and the yellow-orange sap from the leaves can burn off some warts.
Mayapple: the fruits are edible, the roots are a cathartic, which means they’ll give you diarrhea if used incorrectly. This plant is also considered at-risk of being endangered.
Poison plants in the carrot family: This link shows how to tell the wild carrot from poisonous look-alikes: https://wildmedicinal.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/poison-hemlock-water-hemlock-and-fools-parsley/
Poison ivy, sumac, or oak: mostly what I see in our area is poison ivy. Luckily, there is a plant called jewelweed that counters the effect of poison ivy. It’s best to just cover your skin and avoid exposure, but if you somehow end up around poison ivy, look for jewelweed. Take a handful of it and rub on the skin before and after your hike. Here is an article on how to identify these three poison plants:
Poke: European settlers in North America learned to make ink from the purple berries of this plant. Many documents during this time were written with poke including the first copy of the U.S. Constitution. The most poisonous part of the plant is the raw leaves and the raw seeds. The root of the plant has a stimulating effect on the lymphatic system and is traditionally used externally on swollen lymph nodes and other lumps. It can burn the skin if not prepared properly and overdose of the raw leaves or berry seeds can lead to death. However, there is a traditional recipe for poke salet. When heard, this sounds like poke salad, but please don’t eat raw poke. Here is some more info: https://southernspaces.org/2011/mess-poke
The USDA’s list of plants in Ohio that are endangered, threatened, and a few believed to be extinct.
United Plant Savers has a list of threatened native medicinal plants with tips on how to grow them in your garden or woods.
Ohio State’s Fact Sheet on Poisonous Mushrooms
Leah Wolfe, MPH, is an herbalist and educator at the Trillium Center is NE Ohio where she leads classes and workshops on how to forage for medicinal herbs wild foods, make home remedies, and grow herbs and food. She has a background in public health and health research. She volunteers for Ashtabula County Metroparks’ Programming Committee.