This Spring I made it a few times to our local Farmer’s Market, which for me is a major accomplishment since I usually do a lot of nothing on Saturday mornings. But I’m so glad I made it, because I met Wilma, a fascinating mountain woman, and bought some currant bushes from her. Now the currants are starting to turn red. Renee checks on them daily, hunting the red jewels for her own pleasure. I’ll be lucky to get any!
When we brought the currant bushes home, my husband told me they looked like the berry bushes that used to grow in his backyard when he was a kid. His mother caught him eating them one time and scolded him fiercely, telling him they were poison. Poison! Poison! Poison! The other day he plucked a crisp red berry from the bush and popped it into his mouth. “Yep, those were the ones that were in my backyard,” he said. “I loved them. They were so tartly delicious. I’m so glad we have some now!”
It’s easy to think that his mom was being a bit harsh, but the truth is, she just didn’t know. Better safe than sorry is not a bad motto, though are there are better ones. Seek and find out, for one, though that’s a little easier now than in the 70s, I’d say.
Consider if my husband, as a child, had been attracted to this plant instead of red berries:
He would not be with us. This plant is Poison Hemlock, and I found it last week growing by my chicken coop. Though it looks like many other innocuous plants–Queen Anne’s Lace in particular–it is deadly poisonous. I read that it can kill you even if you are just handling the root, if you have a cut on your hands. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that it’s poisonous enough that I washed my hands after breaking off a leaf to smell. I thought it might be dill, which is in the same family (Apiaceae) as hemlock, but I wasn’t looking closely enough.
I’ve educated my kids about hemlock, starting with two years ago when I saw it flowering down the road by the creek. Last year it was blooming on our river land, right by the path, and every time I walked by it with them I’d say, “There it is, the poison hemlock! Be careful! That plant can kill you, quick!” Now they are afraid of yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace, and any other plant producing clusters of white flowers. I have pointed out hemlock’s smooth stalk and compared it with the fuzzy stalk of Queen Anne’s Lace, but I think for kids these things can get all mixed up in their heads. Learning the difference between what is poison, and what is not, is knowledge that develops over many, many seasons. Be respectful of each plant, I tell them. Some are so poisonous they can kill you, some are so rich in medicine they can heal you. No plant ever poisoned someone that was just looking at it, so learn to use your eyes. I’m still learning that. And trying to figure out how I want to destroy this plant before it goes to seed.
Meanwhile, the peonies in my garden are tumbling over themselves like girls just become women, tossing their beauty about recklessly, littering the path with a carpet of pink petals. I feel like peonies are the ultimate flower, the way they burst open with frills and scent and color, and then just can’t stop, falling over with the heavy delight of being a flower.
The valerian is flowering, and one plant has a stalk over six feet tall! Looks kind of like hemlock, oddly enough. The root of valerian, where it’s medicine dwells, has a powerful stink-foot smell, but the flowers are sweet and clear. I’ll be gathering the seed this year, and planting more valerian this fall. Do you have any seeds from your garden you’d like to trade for some valerian seeds?
Soon the flowers of May will be gone, and the lilies and bee balm and elecampane will begin flowering. I have really enjoyed my native columbine, which was a volunteer in the pot of another plant I purchased last year. It has bloomed profusely, and its blooms are smaller than the more domesticated columbine. I’ll be passing some seeds from this plant along to a friend of mine, who gave me some of the volunteer columbine plants from her garden. They were so cute–little deep purple doubles! I’m wondering if the native will cross with these unusual samples from her garden to make even more interesting varieties of columbine.