July 13, 2002

Seeds of Doubt, Spores


Seeds of Doubt, Spores of Certainty

Well hello out there, sprouts fans....here is another country-fried tale from the garden. I am starting to feel like Euell Gibbons Meets Uncle Remus. But here's the deal:


Towering over the actual puny intentional edible forbs in the garden, casting shadows on the other lesser weeds like Purslane and Gallant Soldiers, Jimson Weed has risen to prominence with the recent rains. Datura stramonium: a giant among green garden pests. It is also called Stink Weed, guess why; and for its 2" ovoid evil-spiny seed pods: Thorn Apple. As I recall, the name Jimson is an adulteration of Jamestown: a word about this later.

At the time, in a galaxy far far away, I was twenty-seven years old, and new to the Biology faculty at a community college in southwest Virginia. I had gained some notoriety as the 'hippie teacher', since I alone among my colleagues had hair barely over my collar and John Lennon glasses; but more than that, I was seen around the county with my entourage of tree-hugger Earth Children in my Field Botany class. We were quite conspicuous as we scoured the roadsides and fields for new and wonderful plants to identify and admire, photograph, or consume.

It is a mid-summer evening and the phone rings at the house. It is the police. Gulp. Quick check of recent and past experience with illegal substances, activities or those suspected of same. Innocent, but gulp again. They are calling from the hospital regarding the identification of plant substance associated with a possible poisoning. They want to know if I can help them identify the plant source from the seeds they found with the young man. Yea, right. There is no Petersons Field Guide to Spores and Seeds, gentlemen. I doubt I would be able to help you, I told them. But...I am on my way. Urgent, they said. Hurry.

A teenage boy presents in the ER with accelerated heart rate, ataxia (can't walk), and profuse sweating. And he is gorked out of his ever-lovin' head...trippin' right near the edge, man. What a rush! Seizures, dude! And in his pocket was a vial of seeds, the assumption being that many more of them were in his GI tract sending substances unknown to what was left of his brain. Depending on what the active property was, a decision needed to be made right away whether to do gastric lavage, induce vomiting, or start administering an antidote.

Sometimes you get lucky. I poured the seeds out into a stainless steel basin under bright examination lights. I was starting to get into this. Tight-lipped, with only the occasional knowing hmmmmmmm or unnHuhhh I turned the seeds over, scraped a few arcanely with a scalpel (for no real purpose), and then sat silently for a pregnant moment. (Break here at the peak of tension for a commercial...)

Jimminy! What were the chances that I could identify a SEED! But the distinctive, thick, kidney shaped seeds of Jimson Weed could not be mistaken. Case solved. Possible outcome without prompt intervention: death. Start the stomach pumps, administer physostigmine, call the kid's parents and, after he is able to stand up again, arrange to have his butt kicked.

The folks in early Jamestown didn't know hay from horseapples, and were starving to death in the new land of unknown plants. After consuming a big mess of this abundant weed, some died, more just experienced hallucinations and psychosis, in addition to the anticholinergic symptoms seen in our young seed-tripper in the hospital. Datura is also called Loco Weed. A tough lesson; Jamestown had ignorance as an excuse. Jethro here was just a fortunate idiot with a bottle of magic weed seeds that Country Columbo just happened to know.

Same summer a few weeks later, another call at home. This time from a physician. His two-year-old daughter had been entertaining herself in the yard. Noticed to have been intently picking something out of the grass for some time, the mother discovered many small, brown mushrooms in the area. Had the baby eaten any? many? were they poisonous? Should they pump her stomach (a traumatic thing for anyone, much less a two-year-old). Again, what do I know about identifying small, non-descript brown lawn mushrooms...there are dozens of them! Again, I got lucky. This time, I made a quick spore print and got some spores also on a microscope slide. Oh, this was really forensic science of the first stripe! No time to enjoy this one, a child's life may be at stake. Gilled mushroom of lawns, peaked cap, brown spores shaped like an apple pip: Marasmius oreades.

"Your daughter will be just fine, doc. And as a matter of fact, she has very good taste. These mushrooms are 'edible, choice'. Go back and pig out". ...and the theme music fades in slowly, camera pans to follow nature-sleuth and thankful parents and small mycophagus toddler as they walk amiably away from the camera, out the door of the brightly lit hospital waiting room....

Posted by fred1st at July 13, 2002 07:23 AM
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