Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It's Red, Can I Eat It?

There is always someone in my class who wants to munch on anything we come across. Here's a collection of various red fruiting plants.

Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, is an exotic shrub originally brought over to use as a landscape plant in disturbed sites. It's roots are nitrogen fixers, the flowers are sweet scented, and the fruit IS edible. In fact it has nutrients exceeding that of Tomato. It can be recognized by the orange freckles on all parts of the plant. Regardless of the positive attributes, it is highly invasive and extremely difficult to eradicate.

Wild Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, has little red cherries that turn black upon maturity. They are edible. Some find them sweet, others say they are bitter. Perhaps "tart" is the better word. They are used in jellies, jams, pies, etc. This surprises some folks, as they may have heard wild cherry is poisonous. This does occur when branches break and the leaves start to wilt. At this time hydrogen cyanide becomes active and can kill livestock. Any broken branches should be removed from the vicinity of animals.

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a common shrub in our area. While I wouldn't eat them right off the plant, you can use them in medicinal teas. In pioneer days (and even today), you would collect the berries, squeeze out the center black seed, and chop them up. Fry them with meat or veggies as an allspice substitute.

This tiny ground cover plant is Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens. It is an evergreen, forming mats on rocks or acidic soils. It is called Partridgeberry because many gallinaceous birds (turkey, grouse, quail) will feed on it. It's not consumed by humans to my knowledge.

What is most interesting about the plant is its reproductive biology. With most plants, when a flower is fertilized, it becomes a fruit. In Partridgeberry, there is a pair of white tubular flowers, BOTH of which must be pollinated to produce the fruit. Here you can see the two holes where the flowers once were.

Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, is a shrub of open sunny habitats. The berries can be used to make a nice pink lemonade. When I was younger, my roommates and I made the mistake of putting them in hot water. This usually results in a sour taste. There are four red sumac species in Ohio you can use. Two of them are hairy. I suggest you put the berries in a cheesecloth to filter out the hairs (and any bugs), put them in cold water overnight. Add a touch of lemon and as they say "sweeten to taste".

High-bush Cranberry Viburnum, Viburnum opulus (trilobum), is native to the north-east corner of Ohio. It is used a lot in landscaping not only for it's bright fruit, but showy flowers as well. High-bush is very sour, and sometimes used as a cranberry substitute. Read any recipe carefully, as a certain percentage of people get sick from eating this.

Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum. Upon ripening the fruits are so heavy, the entire plant tends to fall over on the ground. The bright red color entices animals to feed, but it is not edible to humans. The concern over this plant are the basal portions of the root, or corms. Putting that in your mouth will result  in either a cottonmouth reaction or extreme burning. Consuming it can cause the stomach or intestines to swell up. Animals get sick from eating the root, but usually stop before it becomes fatal.

Pictured here is Carolina Rose (native) and Multi-flora Rose (exotic). Roses have been used for centuries in ornamental gardens, to make perfume, and the fruit or 'hips' are cooked in stews, soups, pies, and countless other desserts. They are high in vitamin C, and are common in herbal and medicinal teas.

Coralberry, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, is a native shrub related to the Honeysuckles. It is sometimes used in landscaping. It's fruit smell like apples, but are not edible.

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida. One of the most popular trees used as an ornamental. It has 4 showy white bracts (not petals) on it's flowers. There is also a pink variety. The clusters of fruit are not edible to humans. Before toothbrushes, native american indians chewed dogwood bark to clean their teeth.

Yew, Taxus spp. There are many species of Yew trees and shrubs around the world. A native shrub, Taxus canadensis, is found in unglaciated portions of Ohio. Most Yews that people see are planted non-native ornamentals. Yews are gymnosperms, and produce a hollow fleshy 'cone' that surrounds a hard green seed. It is more properly called an aril. It is said the sticky liquid in the red portion can be used to make a syrup. But the seed itself is one of the most toxic and deadly of fruits.

Winterberry Holly, Ilex verticillata. A showy plant of swamps and marshes. Like all hollies, the fruit is poisonous.

Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii. Recognized by the little spoon shaped leaves and sharp thorns, it has been used a lot in landscaping. Trouble is it has become an invasive escape. Scraping the bark will reveal a neon yellow-green color. The fruit persist into winter, but are not edible.

Other exotic invasives include the Bush Honeysuckles. Morrow's, Amur, Tatarian, and a fourth hybrid. I have seen folks get upset when metro parks remove these. People just don't understand the invasive potential of non-native plants. The berries are not edible, and some honeysuckles can be poisonous.

Serviceberry, Juneberry, Shadbush, Shadrack. Amelanchier arborea. Ripening in June, the fruit is used for jams, pies, wine, or eaten right off the tree. Depending on your palate, the taste is described as having hints of blueberry or cherry.

The folklore behind the names is interesting. In the old days when the ground was frozen during winter, people could not dig a burial pit. When serviceberry came into bloom early in the spring, it told people the ground was thawing, and services could then be held for the dead. When this plant started blooming, it indicated to people the shad were running, and it was time to go fishing.

While I haven't mentioned this for each individual species, the vast majority of these are used by birds and mammals. Wildlife students learn which of these are native or exotic, which prefer forests or open fields, and management is practiced accordingly.

Hey, how'd that get in here!!


  1. sorry but you gotta be wrong on the Japanese Barberry because i just read last month that the fruits are ok to eat and i tried one and it tasted just like a very small ripe apple and i didn't get sick it was good and i would eat more of them if i had some

  2. what i read about the Japanese Barberry is that it fights off cancer and that its healthy for us to eat and that it does have vitamins in it. but once the fruits get older to where they are getting soft it starts to tasting like a old apple would is what i found out my self.

    i wouldn't even try to eat the yew berry the red part its way to slimy on the fingers and in your mouth.

    and holly berries are really sweet i tried them too but i didn't eat the seeds