Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 16, 2007

Berries White, Birds in Sight

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:13 pm

   There is an old adage that says “berries white, take flight.”  The idea was to keep naive city folk from eating poisonous berries.  Like most riddles of their sort they are mostly right, but wrong enough not to use too often.  You simply can’t run away from every ivory colored fruit and call yourself a sane human being. First of all, berries do not attack people and white berries in particular aren’t necessarily bad.  The berries of the Red-Panicled Dogwood and the Poison Ivy are good examples of this.

  The white berries of the Poison Ivy (see here) are certainly anti-people.  All parts of the plant contain the irritant urushiol and both the hairy stem and fruit carry on their poisonous ways long after the leaves have fallen to earth (those leaves of “leaflets three, let it be” fame, by the way).  Eating these berries can be a lethal experience for a human being.  So, here’s a simple riddle to remember: Don’t eat Poison ivy berries.  O.K., it doesn’t rhyme, but the point is pretty direct – the word “poison” should be enough.

  Poison ivy berries are not “bad,” however.  The noxious little fruits are an important natural wildlife food source. Animals not only eat them with impunity, they love ‘em. Over sixty species of birds eat them as a regular part of their diet.  One bird in particular, the Yellow-rumped Warbler (see here) is especially fond of the fruit.  Insect eaters during the summer, these colorful little butter butts turn into vegetarians during the winter.  They will stay in our northern climes as long as there is available food.  Bumper crops of poison ivy berries will usually forecast a healthy population of winter warblers to come.

  Yellow rumps have a hankering for waxy fruit and can digest them with ease. Out east, the waxy myrtle berries are preferred, but here the poison ivy ranks high on their list. 

  The non-poisonous fruits of the Red-Panicled Dogwood (see here) also serve as wildlife food. Birds and other wildlife depend on them for cold season sustenance and wintering flocks of robins practically owe their existence to them. The berries are not poisonous to people, but aren’t really edible either. “Berries white, quite a sight” might be a nice ditty to sum up the relationship between us and the berries in question. Native peoples have long used the bark of this shrub for medicines or a smoking mix called Kinnikinnick, but the berries were left to their own. These shrubby dogwoods are very common in our region and their purplish fall color contrasts nicely with their white fruit clusters.  They are a treat for the eyes.

  The striking visual quality of the dogwood is accentuated by the bright red stalk that supports the berry cluster. This part is called the panicle and is the source of the plant’s name. Other common names are Gray Dogwood and Northern Swamp Dogwood, but none of these have the appeal of the more sophisticated title. 

  In terms of human use these two white berry types appear to have very little practical value, but esthetically they have much to offer.  Both Poison Ivy and Red-Panicled Dogwood berries act like bird seeds – wherever they plant themselves beautiful birds are sure to sprout.“Berries white, birds in sight” would be a very appropriate motto to consider here. 

1 Comment »

  1. Squirrels also love poison ivy berries.

    Comment by John — December 20, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

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