How to Get Poisoned in the Woods

By and large, seed collecting here in central Idaho has been going quite well. We’ve picked bags and bags of fleabanes, needlegrass, wheatgrass, and fiddlenecks. The season has been a bit behind so far, but the last few weeks, our plants must have finally heard the wake-up call of summer and decided to finally get in motion. All of a sudden, we went from having no seeds to gather to running all over the forest, trying to keep up with everything!

There are a handful of plants that are still evading us, of course. One of those is Lathyrus lanszwertii, the Nevada pea. We’ve followed a handful of leads for it, all of which turned out to be dead ends – including a half-hour drive on a very bumpy mountain road to be taunted by a patch of Lathyrus pauciflorus, the few-flowered pea. (Guess how much luck we’d have trying to collect 30,000 seeds from that?) And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so Dan and I have been on high alert for anything that vaguely resembles this enigmatic legume. Our curiosity (read: desperation) led us last week into a decent bit of misadventure.

Early Wednesday morning, while scouting for wild mint (Agastache urticifolia), I followed the trail a little farther up the streambank to find a string of brilliant purple flowers growing among the alders. Could this finally be our pea? I hopped over the rocks to pick a flower off and scour our field guide. It had five petals, reflexed backwards, pinnate leaves, a vining growth form – this had to be it. But the stamens grew in a dense, tangled knot around the center of the flower. That’s strange, I thought. Fabaceae has just a handful of stamens and they’re fused to each other.

We started searching the guide for any kind of purple flowers. Suddenly, Dan insisted, “Drop that thing on the ground right now.”

“What?” I said.

“Get rid of it! That’s called monkshood. Haven’t you ever heard of it?”


“It’s, like, the most poisonous plant in the West. Eating one flower is enough to knock you dead. It’ll absorb through skin, too.”

Aconitum columbianum – watch out for this one!

Holy moly! This stuff is no joke. I did some digging on the internet, and sure enough, the lethal dose of monkshood is about a gram. It turns out its Latin name, Aconitum, means “without suffering” because its symptoms appear within minutes, and you die within a few hours. People have actually died from just skin contact with it, although all the reports seemed to be from gardeners who planted it (!?) and were working amidst it for hours on end. We hopped in the jeep and quickly drove back to our house to shower off. After scrubbing our hands with every kind of soap we owned and satisfying ourselves that we weren’t likely to die, we headed back out to cautiously get back to work – and, as any good botanist would do, to get a picture of it for our own plant photo album.

As they say, an adventure is a story that is miserable while you’re creating it and fun to tell in comfort later. And this sure was one of those! Make sure you know the poisonous plants that grow where you’re working and how to avoid them – and definitely don’t eat things you don’t recognize!


My friend Collin: An Account of Events That Actually 100%, No Exaggeration, Happend

It was a hot summer day when I first met Collin. The sun was high, searing my back with radiation, meadowlarks sang on fenceposts, cows mooed cordial greetings. I’m working hard collecting biomass clippings at our Cedar Pass field cite, making sure to properly sort my species. Cool season grass in one bag, warm season in another, work which would otherwise be tedious if not for the sweet sweet strummings of Masayoshi Takanaka massaging my brain through pale earbuds.

I clip the final blade in my rectangular quadrat and grasp at my canteen. Out on the prairie it’s essential to remain hydrated, especially on certified steamers such as this. “Alass! ‘Tis empty! Whatever shall I do?” I announce to the world. A nearby cow responds with a sympathetic, “Moo”. I reel back, shaking a clenched fist at the sun, cursing the infernal radiator which sears my skin. I quickly come to my senses and remember the large cooler filled with ice cold water residing within our vehicle. With a newfound purpose I stagger towards the truck, trudging slowly through the brush. After what feels like 30 seconds I’m no more than 50 meters from the truck, and that’s when I see him.

A small creature dressed in an olive green burlap sack, hunched over like a gargoyle on the tailgate of our truck. “Must be the accursed sun playing tricks on mine eyes, a mirage of sorts, says I,” but as I continue my approach, the creature remains. I reach the truck and the creature stands to greet me. Assessing its features: pointed ears, knobby knees, and a long hooked nose, I conclude the nature of this odd organism; I have come face to face… with a goblin.

“Greetings friend,” the goblin croons, “I have been waiting for you.”

I respond calmly (for I am used to such things), “Salutations, what brings you round these here parts?”

“You, brave mage, I am here for you. My people have lived here for generations, supping from the earth its bountiful gifts. We have flourished by living in balance with the ecosystem which supports us. However, I am afraid our times of peace and prosper are nearing their end. For you see these lands are suffering; plagued by the industry of man, unable to sustain natural equilibrium. Our village seer foretells a great warming of the globe, which spells the eventual destruction of not just our people and our home, but of yours as well. I am but one herald of thousands, sent to seek people such as yourself and forewarn them of this forthcoming doom”.

“Tell me, wise one, what role do I have to play in this epic? What shall I do?”

“What you can, young one, what you can. My goblin intuition tells me the work you are doing here could potentially aid in maintaining the balance of these lands. Apocalyptic weather conditions await us, and the data you are collecting now will serve as a roadmap, or foundation for future generations to survive the storm. You must continue collecting and surveying, for knowledge and science are a powerful magic, human.”

“I will try my best,” I state, looking out at the beautiful landscape surrounding me.

I fill my flagon, and begin to return to my work. Just as I cross the barbed wire fence, I realize, I never asked the name of this brave messenger. “Wait! What is your name wise goblin?” I shout before even turning around, but as I do, a powerful gust of wind rips at my clothes, blowing off my hat. A cloud of dust bellows, swallowing the goblin. When the dust settles, he is gone.

Forlorn, I stare at a lone cloud in the sky. “Collin…” a voice calls out to me as the cloud slowly starts to form the shape of the creature, “my name is Collin, and child…”

“Yes?” I ask the sky.

“Tell my story.”

As I hear these final words, the Collin cloud slowly forms a thumbs up and smiles, revealing the sun hidden behind. I wince, raising my arm to shade my eyes. Once my vision refocuses, the cloud is gone, and Collin with it. For a second I doubt he was ever there to begin with; just the heat playing tricks on my mind. My heart, however, knows the truth.

“I will Collin… I will.”

Kneeling over to pick up my hat, I soak in the beauty of the earth for a brief moment before returning to my work, to save the world.