Thursday, July 7, 2016

Parasitic Plants and a Botanical Brush with Death in the Olympic Mountains

It's 8:30pm and I've just left my car to embark on a three day hike up the Duckabush River and into the Olympic Mountains.  It's dumping rain and I'm trying to get to the first campground as soon as possible but then I see it...Monotropa uniflora!  Do I drop my pack to fish out my camera in the pouring rain and fading light or do I keep moving? Of course I drop everything and start taking pictures.

Monotropa uniflora just popping up from underground
Monotropa uniflora has no chlorophyll, hence its ghostly white color.  It gets all of its nutrients from root associations with ectomycorrhizal fungi, that is, fungi which have entered into symbiotic relationships with plants which actually perform photosynthesis. So really M. uniflora is a parasite on fungi, a term called myco-heterotrophy.  The mechanisms myco-heterotrophs use to cheat the fungi out of carbon and other nutrients is not well understood.

I would end up seeing M. uniflora once more on the way back out of the Duckabush River valley at the end of my trip (didn't have to stop in the pouring rain after all).  I never saw it at elevations higher than about 500 ft.

Higher up in elevation, at approximately 1000 ft. I came across this guy:

 Pterospora andromeda is much taller than Monotropa uniflora, this one was probably around 50 cm. Another myco-heterotroph, like M. uniflora it has no leaves and no chlorophyll. Pterospora andromeda gets its species name from the Pieris japonica, commonly known as Japanese Andromeda.  The flowers of Pterospora andromeda closely resemble those of Japanese Andromeda.  This resemblence is not surprising given the fact that both Pterospora andromeda and Pieris japonica (along with Monotrop uniflora) are in the Ericacea family.

There are a number of myco-heterotroph species within the Ericacea family, otherwise known as the Heather family.  In fact, we'll see one more example of an Ericacea parasite as we start to gain elevation in the Olympics. Given the Ericacea family's preferred ecosystems, it makes sense that it evolved so many myco-hetertrophs.  They usually grow in nutrient poor soils (so they're pressured to steal) that are acidic (there will be more fungal activity) and are often in forest understories (there will be abundant ectomycorrhizal fungi to parasitize). 

The last Ericacea myco-heterotroph I saw was at about 2000 ft.  Monotropa hypopitys.  It has a nice orange creamsicle color scheme going on.  I have seen pictures of them with a wide range of colors, from red to pink to yellow to white.  No green of course since, as parasites, they don't need no stinkin chlorophyl!

 A more common site along the trail was Corallorrhiza mertensiana, or Pacific Coralroot.  This spindly fellow is a myco-heterotroph from the orchid family.  Again you can see there are no leaves and no chlorophyll present.  I didn't realize this, but apparently all orchids are myco-heterotrophic during germination and initial growth.  These narrow stalks definitely pushed the poor macro lense abilities of my smart phone to its limits.

Along the trail I had been enjoying thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), black raspberries (Rubus leucodermis), trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus) and salmon berries (Rubus spectabilis).  The thimbleberries are by far my favorite- they're just so tangy with the perfect consistency.  And while it's always nice when nature offers up edible berries alongside the trail, I'll sometimes pass up the less flavorful salmon berries.  On my last day on the trail I come across a plant with red berries and leaves that look like they belong to the Rubus family.  Intrigued I stop to try and ID the plant.  The closest thing I can come up with is Rubus arcticus although there is no picture for this specific species. The berries on the plant I'm looking at on the trail don't have drupules though, which should have been the red flag that this wasn't in the Rubus family.

So of course I do the intelligent thing and I bite into one of the berries to investigate further.  Whoa! this is definitely not in the Rubus family and it's quite bitter.  So I spit it out.  What was that?  I figure if it's not in the Rubus family, the leaves mean it's either in the Saxifragaceae or Ranunculaceae family.  So I go through Saxifragaceae in the Pojar id book and come up with nothing.  Then I leaf through Ranunculaceae.  HOLY SH!T it's Actaea rubra, aka Red Baneberry: "as few as six berries can cause vomiting, bloody diarrhea, repiratory paralysis, and eventually death."  Glad I spit that out - talk about a close one!!  Lesson learned. Make sure you ID the plant properly before you take a bite and if it's not what you thought, spit it out.

Below you can see the berry I spit out. Note the fly licking his chops.  Little does he know that tasty looking mush is loaded with cardiogenic toxins

In doing some research on Red Baneberry I came across my new botanical hero, Alice E. Bacon.  Not finding sufficient information as to whether or not the fruits of Acteae rubra were edible, Bacon, with admirable bravery and curiosity, tested the berries on herself.  Her findings were published in 1903 in "Rhodora", the journal of the New England Botanical Club.  I've reprinted them here in their entirety as they are imminently readable.

 Alice E. Bacon.

 Some years ago several plants of the red baneberry (Actaea spicaia, var. rubra, Ait.) were transplanted to a sheltered spot in Bradford, Vermont, along the base of a veranda facing the east, and shaded by maples. The situation proving favorable, the plants each year have been very ornamental, being of unusual size and producing very large clusters of fruit. The graceful, lace-like leaves and the vivid crimson of the berries attract a great deal of attention, and the questions are often asked: "Where did you get such beautiful plants?" "What can they be?" and "Aren't those berries good to eat? "

 An examination of several works on Materia Medica failed to show anything as to the properties of the red-berried species, although those of the white-berried were carefully noted. In the fear that children, attracted by the beauty of the fruit, might eat to their own undoing, an experiment in the qualities of the berries was entered upon with the following result.

 A small dose was taken after the mid-day meal, as caution seemed advisable ; but the only effect noted was a slight burning in the stomach. The question, however, of children eating the forbidden fruit was definitely settled at once, as no child, youth, sane adult, not even a hungry school-boy would ever devour it from deliberate choice; the taste is most nauseous, bitter, puckery; indeed, several even more drastic adjectives might be applied with perfect truth.

Having survived the first attempt, the experimenter hopefully tried again two days later, allowing time for the first dose to be completely eliminated from the system. On this occasion double the first quantity was taken, and in less than half an hour there was a decided quickening of the pulse and a return of the burning in the stomach, this time more severe than before. These symptoms were transient, lasting perhaps fifteen minutes.

Two days later twice the former amount was taken. Half an hour afterward all curiosity on the subject of red baneberry was abundantly satisfied, for this one experimenter at least. At first there was a most extraordinary pyrotechnic display of blue objects of all sizes and tints, circular with irregular edges; as one became interested in the spots a heavy weight was lowered on the top of the head and remained there, while sharp pains shot through the temples. 

Then suddenly the mind became confused and there was a total disability to recollect anything distinctly or arrange ideas with any coherency. On an attempt to talk, wrong names were given to objects, and although at the same time the mind knew mistakes were made in speech, the words seemed to utter themselves independently.

For a few minutes there was great dizziness, the body seeming to swing off into space, while the blue spots changed to dancing sparks of fire. The lips and throat became parched and the latter somewhat constricted ; swallowing was rather difficult ; there was intense burning in the stomach with gaseous eructations, followed by sharp colicky pains in the abdomen and also pain across the back over the kidneys. The pulse rose to 125, was irregular, wiry, tense ; the heart fluttered most unpleasantly. 

These symptoms lasted about an hour and were followed by a feeling of great weariness, but in three hours from the time of taking the dose all seemed to be again normal. The experiment was carried no further, as the effects in heart and brain were danger signals not to be ignored. The conclusion reached is, that while the very unpleasant taste will prevent it from being dangerous in general, the fruit of the red baneberry evidently contains a poison having a powerful effect on circulation and brain; a dozen berries would probably be enough for a fatal dose, half that amount sufficing for the above experience.

 Bradford, Vermont

WOW! Talk about a gutsy botanist taking one for the team.

Below you can see the difference between the leaves of Rubus leucodermis (on top and in my hand in the picture) and Actaea rubra (below).

And with that reminder that life is fleeting, here is a beautiful bed of Phlox diffusa in the alpine heights of the Olympics...

....and the Quinalt River valley