As I scan my yard deciding what flora to write about for November, my eyes keep returning to two plants because they look so different than the autumn colors around them. They have nothing in common and one is not even a wild edible. But they are both who I look forward to seeing every late fall.
Another blue berry
I love the smell of juniper berries… but dislike the taste of gin. Go figure. But juniper berries can be more than just the main ingredient in gin. The common juniper, Juniperus communis, in Cupressaceae (cypress family) is a native New England evergreen coniferous shrub with sharp, white-striped, green needle-like leaves in whorled groups of three around the stem and green berries turning blue-purple when ripe. These “berries” are not actually berries. These fleshy tightly-scaled globes are the female seed cones. The male oval-shaped cones appear more beaded than cone-like, with yellow “beads” of pollen amongst green scales. The male and female cones grow on separate shrubs and are wind pollinated and bird-droppings dispersed. Juniper “berries” are edible and if you can wait the 2 years before they are ripe, you will be rewarded with more flavorful produce. That is if you can access the berries faster than the birds. From eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and American robins to turkey and grouse, junipers are a go-to winter food staple. Common junipers prefer sunny fields so look for semi-abandoned fields and along the edges of fields. They can also do well with other conifers as long as they are not shaded out, such as within Christmas tree farms.
Juniper berries are both edible and medicinal. In addition as a botanical for gin-making, they are used to flavor soups and stews. Dried, you can grind them with a mortar and pestle and add them to fermenting foods such as sauerkraut and pickles. Similar to other conifers, juniper contains vitamin C and antioxidants. Juniper berries also have antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-yeast properties. 1 cup of dried berries to a quart of water can be boiled and steeped to make a strong tea and used as a vaginal douche to get rid of a yeast infection. Let that tea cool down of course before using! And though juniper can be harsh on the liver and kidney you would have to consume a mighty amount. Flavoring dishes and short-term medicinal use should not be an issue. Check with your local herbalist health care provider for more information regarding your specific needs.
A pretty poison
When I moved up the road from where I was to where I am, in addition to carrying with me two small juniper shrubs, I just had to bring with me some monkshood. Handling the plant with care, both as a summer transplant and because all parts of this plant are poisonous, I felt it vital to have this awe-inspiring frost-surviving majestically-purple flower with me.
Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae); a family of which there are few edibles and of those few tend to be eaten only cooked and as a last resort. This herbaceous perennial is also known as aconite, wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, and queen of poisons. And curiously, as devil’s helmet which one would think would be an opposite to a monk’s hood. And though aconite heralds from western and central Europe, it has been naturalized in North America, enjoying life as a garden ornamental. Its eye-catching spires of deep purple hood-like flowers are arresting in late fall as one of the only flowers left standing as the frost bites and destroys most other flowers. The dark green leaves which turn golden brown in autumn are palmate, thick veined, and deeply lobed with each lobe tri-lobed and toothed. As the flowers fade they appear veined and translucent, with the globular fruit showing through.
All parts of monkshood are poisonous, hence why it has so many other common names ending in “bane”, meaning a deadly poison. And its Latin name Aconitum may stem from the Greek akon meaning dart – which is what would be tipped with the juices of this pretty poison. Aconitine is a heart and nerve toxin. A dart tipped with aconite or a tincture in ones’ drink could bring predators and enemies down with agonizing accuracy. And though just touching any part of the plant may not cause any adverse reactions, it is best to handle this posy with gloves because direct contact can cause abnormal sensations of prickling or itching if the cells are crushed. And if you accidently ingest this queen of poisons be sure you have your will in place because there is not much medically that can be done even if you get to a hospital in time. Activated charcoal may be useful. So why have this plant in your yard? Well, if the apocalypse comes you’ve got a source of protection, right? As long as you’ve got good aim. And monkshood is pretty. We have all matter of flora in our yards that we cannot eat but we keep around because we like them. Heck, some people actually keep grass around and you can’t eat grass; all you can do is mow it and mow it some more and wait for winter when you won’t have to mow it anymore.
So whether you welcome healers or poisoners in to share space with, be mindful who is growing around you as you enjoy the oncoming winter.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
This article appeared in the November 2021 edition of The Ashfield News.
Another version of this article, focusing on Monkshood only appears in this Blog.
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