Toxic plants of Appalachia

Most white settlers here in the Smokies region avoided mushrooms like the plague. This was because their ancestors arriving here in America had found and ingested mushrooms that were deadly look-a-likes for species they had safely eaten in Europe. On the other hand, many Cherokees still gather and eat mushrooms with gusto. Through the years, they have learned by trial and error the species that are to be avoided.

Other highly toxic plants in this region include climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), dolls’-eyes (Actaea pachypoda), false hellebore (Veratrum viride and V. parviflorum), jimsonweed (Datura stramonium), and May-apple or American mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum).

Hemlock trees aren’t toxic in the least. The poison hemlock we think of is in reality an herbaceous species in the carrot family that bears the scientific name “Conium maculatum.”

Its finely-dissected leaves and purple-spotted stems are diagnostic. Nevertheless, novice wild food foragers hoping to gather the edible rootstocks of Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) sometimes slip up and harvest poison hemlock instead. Wannabe foragers can also mistake the finely dissected leaves of the young plants for parsley, or the seeds for anise. Such errors inevitably result in a trip to an emergency room and, sometimes, even to the cemetery.

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