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Nature Notebook – Poisonous Berries

Deadly nightshade, pokeberry, Virginia creeper, wild cherries, bittersweet, elderberry, honeysuckle…these plants are common to southwest Michigan. Their luscious looking fall fruits seem to beckon to fall hikers taking advantage of the recent delightful autumn weather.

Many wild fruits have little appeal after the first taste. The first taste of the fruits listed above, can send those hikers to the emergency room. Our canine companions and farm animals may also be susceptible to the toxins. However, birds and small mammals relish most of these fruits.

The bright colors, especially red, allow their “intended” consumers (birds) to easily spot the berries. The squishy or dry meat surrounding the seeds provides the calories needed by birds for migration or heat production.

The seeds themselves pass through the digestive tract intact and prepped to start the next generation of plants. The digestive process seems to enhance seed germination by removing growth-preventing chemicals from the seed coats.

How can they eat these seeming lethal snacks? Some biologists think that a varied diet buffers the toxin. Some think the birds “know” their safe limit. Others think it may be a matter of bird biochemistry.