Monday, November 7, 2011

Misadventures with the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)

I thought I was going to die today, but rest easy for I will not.  I received no comfort from Messrs. Alden and Paulson, harumph!  But I am getting ahead of myself.  See, it all started weeks ago on my edible wild foods walk at the Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary in Attleboro, Massachusetts.  Russ Cohen, author of Wild plants I have known... and eaten and our guide for the walk, was sharing useful beginner's wisdom about wild foods.  "If it tastes bad, don't eat it," he offered helpfully.  I oversimplified what he shared with us that day because this was the most useful statement I heard.  Russ did helpfully add, "that's not to say you should go around tasting everything," but I had already begun finding the hidden fruits of the forest and begun tasting them with reckless abandon.  If the suspected "food" wasn't delicious, I spit it out.  It didn't bother me that I spit out nearly everything I had never seen in a supermarket before; trying these forest fruits made feel hip and dangerous.  I survived the nature walk that day.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.) - Pretty, but mildly poisonous!
Now I'm in Seattle, visiting a friend.  While walking in Lincoln Park, a beautiful stretch along the Puget Sound in southwest Seattle, I realized there were wild blackberries everywhere.  Joy!  I happily leaped for the tall berries others couldn't reach.  While chewing, I remembered the wild foods walk I had survived weeks ago in Massachusetts, and decided to resume my "taste first, ask questions later" approach to Pacific Northwest plants.  The next time I saw a strange plant, I popped a few of its snow-white berries into my mouth and chewed.  Disappointed at the complete lack of flavor, I spit them out.  I took a photo (see picture), and we later identified them as snowberries (Symphoricarpos), which are mildly toxic; you'd have to eat a lot to get sick.  This approach to wild berries made me a mini-hero to my friend, a computer geek who is always surprised to see trees outside of the zoo.  Now I felt like Survivor-man, and thus began my wild food foraging in the great wilderness of Seattle's parks and suburbs.  I should have reminded myself that my foraging experience was limited to a single lecture about Atlantic Coast plants, and that none of what I'd yet found was actually food...

Nevertheless, this is how I found myself chewing on a small red berry (or aril, in technical terms) that I'd plucked from a needly evergreen shrub next to a Seattle bus stop.  The fruit had a slight sweetness over the snowberry.  So I had a decision to make.  I could spit it out like I did with the snowberry, which was neutral on the is-it-bad-or-good scale, and was only mildly poisonous anyway - or I could swallow it and see what happened.  Because I thought it was funny, I decided to eat only half of the berry.  

The Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia)
When I got back to my friend's house I reached for the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest, by Mr Peter Alden and Mr Dennis Paulson, to look up the strange red berry.  (I had bought him this book as a way of getting him to discover what nature Seattle had to offer beyond the bugs in his programming code.)  To my delight, I found the berry on page 102.  This is what the authors wrote about the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia):
"Shrub or tree with broad crown.  Bark brown, purple, and red; smooth, flaky.  Needles soft, flat, in 2 rows.  Fruit (aril) tiny, red, cup-shaped, berry-like, juicy.  CAUTION: Fruit deadly poisonous."

Excuse me?
I began to sweat.  
Nervously, I checked my mental and physical state.  
How many berries does it take to kill a man?  
In a mild panic, I turned to Google.

According to a document I found, the yew berry (or aril, as I corrected myself while awaiting possible death) "contains toxic amounts of the cardiotoxic alkaloidal fraction named 'taxine.'  'Taxine' causes death from asphyxia due to cardiac and respiratory failure."
Was I having trouble breathing?!  I read on.
" The Pacific Northwest of the United States has actually only been ‘civilized’ and ‘settled’ for a little over 100 years.  Most of the people that ‘settled’ this country were of European or Asian decent.  They recognized the yews when they got here..."
Hm, so I was going to die because my ancestors immigrated to the Atlantic Coast, found no yews, and didn't think it would make a useful tradition to pass this knowledge on through the generations in case the shrubs should be found elsewhere on the new continent.  I was particularly worried, and ready to start dialing the local Poison Control Center.  But I really like to read, so I kept going, still scared I might die:
"...and mistakenly assumed they were poisonous like the yews in their homelands."

Excuse me again?
I realized my throat wasn't tight.  Continuing with the text:
"The Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) got a bad rap due to guilt-by-association and that is why many websites, encyclopedias and botanical publications list Taxus brevifolia as poisonous.  There are no documented instances of poisoning in humans or animals with Taxus brevifolia."  

"#$%^&*!," I shouted to the authors of my Audubon guide, with a sigh of relief.  I do not feel like I am dying.  But I wished they had checked their facts!  Still, it is my fault for mis-interpreting advice from a wild foods forager.  In today's information age, where positive identification can be made in mere minutes, it is irresponsible to taste anything in the wild you don't recognize.  But it did add some thrill to my afternoon!

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