Category Archives: Poisonous

Plant of the day: western azalea

Rhododendron_occidentaleOn warm days, stands of azalea bushes exude a sweet and spicy fragrance. These shrubs in the rhododendron family are one of my favorite plants. The flowers are beautiful: large white trumpets have a splash of peachy orange on their upper lip, and a delicate array of long stamens. But the best thing about western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) is their smell: it is the epitome of Californian summers. These shrubs prefer to grow on stream banks, and their pungent aroma is embedded in childhood memories of swimming holes and rock hopping. Even the leaves–pale green and slightly sticky–have their own fragrance. It’s a lovely thing. In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir said everybody must like this “charming shrub” not only for itself, but “also for the shady alders and willows, ferny meadows, and living water associated with it”.

Western azalea also grows in marshy flats, and I spotted the one photographed here at the Potrero Meadow picnic area. I have only seen azaleas blooming in late spring and early summer, but the Marin Flora says there are some plants near Rattlesnake Camp that have flowers almost all year round–a treat worth keeping an eye out for.

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Plant of the day: red clintonia

I’ve been keeping my eye on the clintonia.

Clintonia_andrewsiana2For much of the year, these perennial lilies simply look like a pile of green, tongue-shaped leaves that sit unchanging on the forest floor. But in the springtime, they reward hikers with a dense cluster of brilliantly pink flowers atop a leafless stalk. There are masses of them along the Steep Ravine trail; when I was there a week ago the flowers looked just about ready to bloom–they are sure to be a lovely sight when they do. Later in the season, the flowers will be replaced by glossy blue-black berries that look like a stylized starburst, exploding from a single point on the end of slim pedicels.

Red clintonia (Clintonia andrewsiana, also known as Andrew’s clintonia or blue-bead lily) generally grows under redwoods. Its range is restricted to the coast of Northern California, extending slightly into Oregon. Its berries are pretty but probably toxic–definitely don’t eat ’em.Clintonia_andrewsiana3Clintonia_andrewsiana1

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Plant of the day: canyon larkspur

Delphinium_nudicaule1The brilliant red of canyon larkspur seems to glow in the shade of a rocky hillside. Also known as red larkspur, the color of Delphinium nudicaule flowers is so intense that it nearly vibrates. Each little flower tapers to a point in the back; an artists’ rendering of a gnome’s cap or the cowl of Little Red Riding Hood’s cape.

Red larkspur tends to grow most prolifically on shaded, rocky slopes. It is found across much of Northern California, and is not to be confused with scarlet larkspur–which grows farther south and has plants with more densely clustered flowers. It’s the only red larkspur in the area (though there is one yellow-flowered species, and several that are blue, white, or purple). According to the Marin Flora, this species has been found to hybridise with the blue-flowered coastal larkspur, creating offspring that are coral, lavender or purple.

All parts of the plant are highly poisonous–don’t eat it!Delphinium_nudicaule2

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Plant of the day: Pacific trillium

Three green leaves surround three white petals surround a cream-colored, three-parted pistil–each part offset from the other to form a lovely pattern. The whole thing sits perched atop a slim stalk like an elaborate parasol. This large, striking flower is Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum, also known as wake robin). Ankle-high groves of it are in bloom along the steep ravine trail on Mt. Tamalpais; a stunning sight beneath the towering redwoods: beauty above and beauty below.

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This low-growing perennial thrives on shady hillsides and other places that stay moist but are well drained. Trillium is a member of the Melanthiaceae (the false hellebore family, which is a close relative of the lily family) and like lilies it has all of its parts in sets of three, including six yellow stamens. The white flowers turn purple as they age. Each year a fresh stalk sprouts from an underground rhizome.

The plant was used medicinally by various Native American tribes, but only externally–as far as I can tell. An infusion made from the roots was used as a wash for sore eyes, and to treat boils. The Skagit considered it poisonous.

Trillium has also been used as a love potion–the Makah tribe would apply a poultice made of pounded roots as a love medicine; unfortunately my reference doesn’t say what the desired result is, or where the poultice is applied.

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Plant of the day: star lily

These little lilies bloom in the dappled sun of an oak-covered hilltop. They are one of the earliest flowers to bloom, with their creamy star-shaped flowers opening above trailing ribbons of green leaves. But don’t be tricked by its beauty: the star lily (Toxicoscordion fremontii) is also known as death camas, and with good reason–it is highly poisonous.

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Plant of the day: canyon live oak

Quercus_chrysolepis1True to its name, canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis)  is often found clinging to ravine walls and steep hillsides. This beautiful and abundant tree is most easily identified by the golden-colored fuzz that coats the concave underside of young leaves–giving rise to one of it’s other common names, goldencup oak. In chaparral it can be low low and shrubby, but in more open country it grows into a graceful tree.

Canyon live oak has particularly hard wood for an oak, and its third common name is maul oak as it historically was used to make axles, tool handles, mauls, wagon tongues, plow beams, ship frames, and wheels. Wedges made from canyon live oak were used to split redwood into railroad ties. As with all oaks, its acorns were a favorite food of Native Americans. Once the bitter tannins had been leached out, it can be made into flour for cakes, breads and stews. In the southern coast range, it is a main habitat for spotted owls; myriad other species live in the oak forests, thriving on the abundant nourishment provided by the acorns. Reptiles and amphibians live in trunk cavities, birds nest among the branches, black-tailed deer browse on the leaves and mountain lions prowl through the underbrush.


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Plant of the day: calla lily

Here is another pretty out-of-season bloom. Calla lilies are a gorgeous sight with large cream-colored blossoms rising from clusters of dark green leaves. They usually flower from May through June, but recently there has been a pretty cluster of them growing near the neighborhood farm stand in Bolinas–is it climate change? Or just the variable microclimates in the Indian summer of California?

The stark white “flower” of the calla lily is actually a spathe, or bract–a leafy appendage below the flower that is usually green. The actual flowers are clustered on a yellow nub that rises from the center of the creamy white sheath. Each spathe is nearly 10 inches across.

This plant is native to east Africa, and grows in scattered locations here in California–usually near places that are (or were historically) inhabited.

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethicopia) is mildly toxic to eat. It is also called Arum lily and (according to Wikipedia) “varkoor”, which aptly means “pig’s ear” in Africaans.

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Plant of the day: blue elderberry

Clusters of grayish-blue fruits hang from the branches of a small tree. Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a beautiful plant with arching branches. Its shaggy bark is wrapped around with furrows in older plants. The leaves are a fresh green and paired; each pinnate leaf actually looks like several leaves, since it is composed of 3–9 little leaflets.

Elderberry has a rich history of being used in cuisine, crafts, and medicine–but it must be approached with caution since the green parts of the plant and the unripe berries are quite toxic. The roots are the most toxic of all. But ripe berries make a delicious syrup, jam or wine, and the plant has long been cherished by traditional cultures. Petals can be eaten raw, made into a tea, or used to flavor pancakes. Some have even dipped the entire flower head in batter and fried it! Elderberry syrup is said to be an effective treatment for the flu; you can buy bottles of it at most health food stores. Native Americans used the branches for baskets, flutes and arrow shafts, and the fruit was a main food source.

Before the fruit is ripe, you can tell blue elderberry from its cousin, red elderberry, by the shape of the flower head. Blue elderberry has a flat-topped cluster, whereas red elderberry flowers are arranged in a pyramidal or roundish shape.

Notice the flower head is flat, not cone-shaped

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Plant of the day: common nightshade

Solanum americanum

As a kid I called this plant deadly nightshade, which may be why it has always looked sinister to me. It likes to grow in shady places, where its white or purple flowers gleam like little stars. Solanum americanum twines its narrow stem up through bushes, or drapes over tree branches. The deep green leaves are arrow-shaped–like a weapon, or the head of a rattlesnake or pit bull. It may look pretty but its very outline says “don’t mess with me.”

Despite being in the same family as peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, nightshade is quite toxic. My childhood respect was well-founded; eating the unripe berries has been fatal to more hapless tots. But just how poisonous nightshade is can vary with population, environment, and the age of the plant. Farmers don’t like it because the berries can’t be separated from peas and some beans, it is resistant to some herbicides, and the vines can gum up the harvesting machinery as well (according to the CA Department of Food and Agriculture).

I’m not sure whether this is a plus or not, but nightshade also contains salasodine, a natural compound that is used in some countries to manufacture steroid hormones.

Common nightshade is considered native, but there is a chance that it was an early introduction from South America.

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Plant of the day: snowberry

Clusters of stark white berries dangle from leafy stems in the forested understory. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is perfectly named for its color.

This pretty bush is in the same family as honeysuckle, and is native to Canada and much of the US (except for the southernmost states). Some sources say that the berries are NOT edible, with symptoms listed as vomiting, dizziness and mild sedation in children. However, west coast tribes ate the fruit both fresh and dry (though they apparently didn’t prefer it). It was also used as a shampoo, a poultice, and a treatment for STDs. The wood was used as arrow shafts and pipe stems.

There are two species of snowberry in Marin, and several others are found throughout California. In Marin, you can tell common snowberry from its cousin, creeping snowberry, because it is taller and doesn’t have hairs on the top of its leaves.

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