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Winter's merry berries carry risks

Photos by Ruth Ann Grissom

Around the holidays, a marksman in the Uwharries might be aiming his rifle at a clump of mistletoe instead of at a deer.  When I lived in Charlotte, where the use of the .22 is discouraged, the arborists who cared for our aging willow oaks came around in December and left sprigs of mistletoe on our door.

With their crews climbing trees all across the city, they had easy access to this hemiparasitic plant.  It gets some of its nourishment from its host plant and produces some of its own through photosynthesis.  It doesn’t seem to mind hanging in our doorways either.  The thick, leathery leaves stay fresh and green for weeks.  The white, semi-translucent berries are as lovely as pearls and just as festive.

But having a dog in the house has given me pause about decorating with mistletoe and holly – especially if it’s a greedy Jack Russell like our Buster, who’s apt to eat most anything.  Both holly and mistletoe are highly toxic to people and pets. Buster probably wouldn’t graze on the greenery, but he couldn’t resist the berries that inevitably fall and bounce across the floor. I’ve read conflicting reports about the toxicity of two other holiday favorites, nandina and pyracantha. The red berries are cheery, but the shrubs can be invasive in the Piedmont. That’s all the more reason, then, to cut the clusters and enjoy them indoors.  I’d still keep them safely out of reach of our furry friends, just in case.

Beyond the holiday season, a number of berries in our forests and gardens can be toxic to dogs.  Buster and I have personal experience with a few. One time, our neighbors cleared an overgrown corner of their yard, then left a brush pile at the curb for the city’s yard waste collection.  When Buster and I walked past, he immediately homed in on the pokeberries.  I yanked him away, took him inside and went straight to my computer.

An avid gardener, I’d bookmarked websites about poisonous plants.  Just as I suspected, pokeberries were on the list.  I knew the drill – induce vomiting with a dose of hydrogen peroxide. The food he’d eaten for breakfast was already stained a vivid purple.  Eating a few pokeberries will just cause an upset stomach, but a large quantity can be deadly. We also need to be sure our dogs avoid the fruits of Virginia creeper, jimsonweed, bittersweet, mountain ash, chokecherry, lantana, Jerusalem cherry, nightshades and yews. 

It’s interesting that our native birds and mammals are able to tolerate these fruits.  A number of birds relish pokeberries: mockingbirds, catbirds, brown thrashers, robins, bluebirds, cardinals, blue jays, grackles, titmice, chickadees, tanagers and wrens.  They’ve evolved with the vegetation, so their systems tolerate things that are toxic to us and our pets.  It was still a shock the first time I saw a warbler pluck a berry off a poison ivy vine.  I remember thinking, “How can you do that?” 

At least one native berry isn’t toxic to dogs. On a fine September afternoon many years ago, I noticed Buster patrolling the fence line. In addition to his usual sniffing and marking, he started rooting around in the leaf litter under my glorious moonflower vine. Some of the flowers had already set seed, and I was concerned he might have eaten some. I called a friend who worked at a greenhouse – this is what we had to do before we had Google – and she told me moonflower seeds are hallucinogenic. I didn’t want my dog using illicit drugs or having flashbacks, but before I pulled out the hydrogen peroxide, I decided to investigate further.  I raked back the leaf litter and scanned the area. There wasn’t a single moonflower seed in sight, only hackberries from the trash tree in the neighbor’s backyard. I called my friend again, and she assured me hackberries were fine. That clever Buster had found himself a native delicacy.

Even though his eyesight is failing – he turned 15 this summer – he’s still able to forage for hackberries when they’re in season.

I don’t begrudge the birds their poison ivy berries, but I’m glad we part ways with our canine friends over the cocoa bean. Eating too much chocolate during the holidays might make us gain weight or feel a little nauseated, but a surprisingly small amount can kill a dog. Of course, that didn’t stop Buster from scarfing down some milk chocolate Santas one Christmas, tinfoil and all.

– Ruth Ann Grissom

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, 888-426-4435, offers emergency consultation for $65.  You can also find information on toxic plants at www.aspca.org/home/pet-care/poison-control.aspx or www.cybercanine.com/toxicplants.htm