In Bloom: Look, don’t taste
June 30, 2005
As Hollywood can attest, we are strongly attracted to things that are beautiful and dangerous at the same time.In the rich understory of the aspen forest lives a community of wildflowers that have developed exotic adaptations for staying alive, with potentially deadly consequences for people. The Hay Park Trail in the Capitol Creek Valley, which winds gently through 12 miles of mature aspen groves to the foot of Mount Sopris, is the perfect place to encounter these bad boys in near solitude. The hike begins by crossing a meadow filled with 6-foot-tall corn lilies, with their signature enormous ribbed leaves winding up the stalks. Veratrum californicum contains a deadly alkaloid meant to discourage grazers. The alkaloid slows breathing and heartbeat, causing symptoms one authority describes as “frothing at the mouth, blurred vision, lockjaw,” etc. And while it probably hadn’t crossed your mind to eat them anyway, enjoy seeing the flowers, since corn lilies only bloom when the weather and water conditions are right. Last year I saw not a single lily in bloom. As the trail starts to climb through the aspens, keep an eye out for the gracefully dangling flowers of Urtica gracilis, or stinging nettle. The burning sensation you get from bumping up against a stinging nettle comes from formic acid, the same stinging substance used by red ants and other annoying critters. The acid is contained in tiny hairs covering the plant, which pierce the skin and inject the acid when touched.Amazingly, stinging nettles are highly edible after they’ve been cooked, which neutralizes the acid. As you continue on, you will see a variety of parsleys, a large family of plants with umbrella-like clusters of tiny white and yellow flowers. Parsleys, which are notoriously difficult to tell apart, range from highly edible to deadly poisonous. Cow parsnip, the largest and one of the tastiest of the family, can be readily identified by its foot-wide, maple-like leaves. Western sweet cicely can be distinguished by its licorice smell – crush its lance-shaped leaves in your hand to get a good whiff. Needless to say, don’t ever taste parsleys when trying to identify them, as parsleys count among their kin the poison hemlock of Socrates fame. Conium maculatum contains a poison that acts almost instantly on the central nervous system, causing tremors, convulsions and other unpleasantries. It is easily identified by the purple spots on its stems. Look on in awe, and keep walking.To get to the Hay Park Trail, drive 6.5 miles southwest from the intersection of Snowmass Creek Road and Capitol Creek Road in Old Snowmass and turn right into the parking area.