By Erin Pallasch, PharmD and IPC Call Center Specialist
Recently, I set out on a quest to determine which would be the scariest berry ingestion a parent might call the Illinois Poison Center about. There are many toxic berries out there, but the one I would be most concerned with would be the Chinaberry. The ingestion of only 6-8 berries has been reported as fatal in a child. The good news is we don’t have any berries this toxic native to Illinois. Whew! Chinaberries have a large range of toxicity depending on the region they grow in and although these berries can be found in Hawaii, Texas and from Florida to Virginia, the fatalities reported have been from eating the African species. I’m relieved to know I am not likely to get a call about these berries here at the IPC, BUT we have plenty of berries native to Illinois to keep us quite busy.
When I was a child, I used to love to take a leaf off our magnolia tree, curve it in my hand and call it a “taco shell”. To this I would add a few pine needles as lettuce and a few yew berries off the evergreen bush to mimic tomatoes and call it my mini taco. At the time I thought it was quite the artistic masterpiece. I was dared several times by my cohorts to eat the “taco” I had created and although I was tempted at the time, knowing what I know now about the toxicity of the yew berry, I’m thankful I did not.
The Yew isn’t the only poisonous berry in the Land of Lincoln. How about a slice of delicious pokeberry pie?? Pokeberries are a very distinct dark purple berry on a thick lighter purple stem. Most parents become aware of a pokeberry ingestion when they find their child stained with the oozing dark purple juice from the berry. When cooked properly; boiled, drained and re-boiled, these berries can be used for pies but there have still been reports of poisonings even when proper cooking methods were thought to have been used. However the calls we recieve about Pokeberries usually involve ingestion of raw berries which may cause abdominal pain, severe gastritis and/or headaches.
If you thought you were out of the woods because you have nothing green growing anywhere near your concrete jungle neighborhood, think again! Another dangerous berry that grows wild in Illinois is often found growing on the fence right off of the alley in many city lots. It is called Deadly Nightshade. These berries come in a variety of colors; green, bright red, dark purple or black: depending on their ripeness. They look like a tiny tomato on the inside when opened. They grow on climbing vines with leaves and may also have small flowers. If these berries are ingested, the victim may experience headache, nausea vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramping, and a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. Depending on the species ingested, the victim may also develop symptoms which are described as anticholinergic, this syndrome is described as being red as a beet, hot as a hare, blind as bat, dry as a bone and mad as a hatter. This means the victim may have red flushed and warm skin, large (dilated) pupils, dry mouth and skin, and may have confusion or hallucinations.
If any of these scenarios sound pleasing to you, by all means, have a yew taco for lunch today (seriously, don’t eat that!). Since I doubt this is the case, if you ever have the unfortunate luck to find your child (or an adult) snacking on any of the above, please call one of the experts at the IPC… 1-800-222-1222, 24 hours, 7 days a week. Based on the situation, amount of berries ingested and any other contributing factors, we will do our best to assist in determining the potential toxicity of the ingestion.
Don’t forget to check out the “My Child Ate…” resource center which gives toxicity level and treatment information for the most common substances/products ingested by children.