Anent those Poison Labels
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Some Exceptions and Further Details
By Steven T. Byington
[The need of exact knowledge cannot be too strongly emphasized in all matters pertaining to poisons and things poisonous. Therefore the following article, correcting awl simplifying certain statements, perhaps too general In nature, in the article Nature's Poison Labels, which appeared in Good Housekeeping for July merits the attention of those who read the latter.—The Editor.]
THE article entitled Nature's Poison Labels in Good Housekeeping for July is well written and convenient, but has the defect that its statements are so general as to be somewhat misleading. In so serious a matter as distinguishing the poisonous from the harmless, statements cannot be too precise and accurate.
It is stated that a "roughness" at the blossom end of a berry is a sign that it is harmless. But the baneberry (Actaea) is a common poisonous berry of New England woods, which I hare seen a small boy pick with the intention of eating, and it has a very pronounced "roughness" at the blossom end, far more than some harmless berries such as the grape.
Next we are told that solanaceous flowers had better be left alone, which is sound advice; but one of the criterions given to distinguish them is "disagreeable odor," while the odor of many sorts is pleasant to many people.
The next paragraph says: "Mowers with stems that exude milk when cut are toxic, unless they have compound flowers. The rule of safety lies in the compound flower." But the common milkweed exudes milk, and its flower is not compound, and everybody knows it is good for greens. On the other hand, the notoriously poisonous order Euphorbiaceae, to which the common spurge belongs, has compound flowers with milky juice.
In the account of the umbelliferous plants it is stated that "those that grow in water are poisonous, but those upon dry ground are safe." The poison hemlock is cited as an instance, as growing in Wet places. I am not personally acquainted with the poison hemlock, but the statement is contrary to some authorities; botanies say merely that it grows "in waste places."
Last comes what is said of mushrooms. It is stated that the poisonous ones "are the most dangerous plants in existence, as there is no antidote for the poison." There is an antidote, atropin, itself a still
more deadly poison, and cannot safely be administered except by a competent physician. There is a hint that harmless kinds are "distinguished by their dark spores from the poisonous kinds with white spores." In fact, many kinds with white spores are harmless and are among the best; for instance, the Champignon, and some kinds with dark spores are reputed poisonous, sickening if not deadly; for instance, the false champignon.
Finally we are told that "the 'death cup' the volva around the stipe, or, in plainer terms, the socket around the stem, is never absent from the deadly mushrooms." Permit me to reply that it may be absent by accident just as a rose may be without a calyx by accident. Most of the distinctive marks of the principal poisonous genus of mushrooms are frail and easily destroyed by accident, and are developed by the tearing of something which may, because of some circumstance in the mushroom's growth, tear in the wrong place and not show the expected sign. Besides, even when the socket is present, some of the most poisonous sorts are apt to pull up out of the ground and leave the socket out of sight underground. And in the most famous poisonous mushroom in the world the socket is so degenerate that it is commonly represented merely by a lot of scattered rags that may not be recognizably present.
The article tells us to reject all bulbous stems, as "all edible and harmless mushrooms have straight stems, the same size from the root to the cap." The writer doubtless forgot the excellent parasol mushroom, which is apt to have a bulb that quite outdoes anything I ever saw on a poisonous mushroom. And, finally, all this applies only to the poisonous mushrooms of the single genus Amanita.
In general, the safest advice is to learn to know your sorts. Most plants and most mushrooms, are not at all hard to know with certainty; the most dubious lot is probably the umbelliferous plants.
- Steven T. Byington, “Anent those Poison Labels,” Good Housekeeping 45, no. 4 (October 1907): 419.