I hope there’s a statute of limitations for attempted murder, because I’m about to confess, and implicate my sister. The intended victim was my other sister, the baby sibling of our family. We were elementary school-aged kids, probably around 9-10 years old, and our younger sister had annoyed us (probably unintentionally) in some way. I had heard that the berries of the poke (or poke sallet) plant were poisonous, so we tricked our younger sister into eating one, then gleefully told her she was going to die. This had the expected result of throwing her into a tearful panic, but ultimately had an unexpected consequence. Our intended victim was unharmed, but her flight and bawling accusation to our mother resulted in we would-be poisoners making a trip to the lilac bush to each select a switch, which was then heartily applied to our backsides. I learned my lesson — to this day, I won’t have a lilac bush on my property.
So you can imagine my unease when Robert Wilson, our guide on a recent plant ID hike at DeSoto State Park, popped a poke berry in his mouth while leading our tour. He explained that yes, poke berries are poisonous, as are the mature leaves, stems, and roots of the pokeweed plant, but some herbal medicine practitioners say that a berry a day is a good anti-inflammatory. Robert mentioned that a recent study indicated you would have to eat “pounds” of berries to receive a fatal dose. He was also very careful to say that people should do their own research, because opinions vary about how much, if any, can be eaten safely. By the way, Robert was apparently unharmed.
I’ve mentioned in other posts that DeSoto State Park does a terrific job of providing programs for its guests. I decided to drive up one morning while Ruth was out of town to attend a free plant ID hike. Robert Wilson is a concessionaire for the park, and provides various guided walks and outdoors skills workshops, some for a modest fee. Robert is an interesting guy — he runs Seven Pines Survival, LLC, a company which provides outdoor education, bushcraft, and survival skills programs for DeSoto, Floyd State Park in Georgia, and the Jackson State University Field School in the Little River Canyon.
Our hike started at the Country Store in DeSoto, and a group of around 20 people of all ages (including babies in knapsacks) and 5 or so dogs of various sizes assembled. Robert introduced himself, told us the hike would be a short one and laid out the general plan. Our route started on the Red trail behind the store, where we then got on the boardwalk to Azalea Cascades, then took a branch of the Orange trail to the campground, and finished the loop with the Gold trail back to the store. I didn’t bring the GPS, but I’d say the loop was around 1 mile, over mostly easy terrain. Robert guessed it would take about 1.5 hours, and he hoped to identify 20-40 plants along the way, but thought with the large size of the group he’d probably identify about 30 or so.
Well, he was an overachiever, as it turns out. I noted every plant he pointed out, and had 42 on my list at the end of the hike. Some were old familiar favorites, such as false Solomon’s seal, American holly, white oak, mountain laurel, Joe Pye weed, persimmon, and prickly pear.
Others were new to me: puttyroot, sweet birch, usnea, cross vine, and pineapple weed. Still others were known to me by a different name: squaw vine (aka partridgeberry) and winter huckleberry (aka sparkleberry).
Robert is known as the “Traveling Herbalist,” and this added a unique dimension to the hike, as most of the plants he pointed out are used in herbal medicine. He has special permission from the park to help the guests experience the plants in a multi-sensory way — that is, we looked at, touched, smelled, and even tasted a few specimens along the way. It was fun to smell the aromatic oils in dog fennel (aka summer cedar), pineapple weed (crushed leaves smell like pineapple), and sweet birch (smells like root beer). We tasted sourwood leaves (guess how they tasted?) and sweet birch, which despite its root beer smell is actually minty when tasted. Old-timers often used sweet birch as a natural toothbrush.
Robert also had a seemingly-endless supply of information about plant ID tips and backcountry uses. Dog fennel, for instance, makes a pretty good bug repellent if reapplied every couple of hours. Pine tar can help relieve the itch from poison ivy. Sweetshrub flowers, when crushed, smell like strawberries. When Virginia pines die, the sap migrates to the core of the tree, where this wood makes superior fire starters. Usnea is not only a good antibiotic; it also serves as an indicator of air quality (the longer the strands, the better the air).
Some of his tips could be real lifesavers. For instance, in one area he noted cross vines on one side of the trail and yellow jessamine on the other. Both are vines that have opposite leaves, usually in pairs, and the flowers are similar, but cross vine is harmless and makes a good tea, while jessamine is poisonous. A good differentiator is the base of the leaves — in cross vines, the leaf base is heart shaped, but in jessamine it just tapers into the vine.
But my favorite tip was a culinary curiosity. You can take the fresh blossoms of redbud trees and make a simple syrup with a subtle floral flavor in a lovely shade of pink. However, when you pour the syrup over pancakes, they will turn (a little) green! Redbud syrup is in fact a pH indicator, and turns green in alkaline conditions.
I had hoped to learn a few interesting tidbits and pick up a few plant ID tips, and this hike exceeded my expectations. I highly recommend keeping an eye open for future events at the park, which you can do on their various social media pages or by signing up for their newsletter at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources email updates page. This site is a great way to opt in for information from many state parks and ADCNR activities.