Thursday, 5 February 2015

Potentially Poisonous Pernettya

The sight of a bush full of fat, colourful berries on a blisteringly cold winter’s day causes sentiments of comfort and wellbeing to abound in the bosom of the beholder. I rather suspect that something in our evolutionary history has predisposed us to feelings of warm fuzziness upon identifying a potentially rich source of nutrition within a harsh and inhospitable landscape, but this suspicion does nothing to lessen the pleasure I get from gazing upon this particular shrub, especially this morning, when the overnight frost has generously dusted the plump berries, the red stems and the diminutive, deep green leaves with countless tiny crystals.

All the same, one can’t help but wonder how many of our prehistoric forbears had to drop dead before the rest of their relatives knew which berries to eat, and which to avoid. They heaven for them that they’d had have to wait several millenia for writing to be invented, because what’s written about the toxicity of Pernettya mucronta (syn. Gaultheria mucronta) is decidedly inconclusive. The taste of the berries is described most often as being sweet, but a bit, well...meh – but the very fact that the taste is often described should offer some encouragement, suggesting as it does the likelihodd of surviving at least for the few moments required to make such a description before – who knows? – either carking it on the spot, or going on to make old bones and bounce the great grandchildren upon the knee. One or the other. I do love the internet*.

I regret to admit that I’m unable to offer my personal testimony on the matter, not because in this case I’m too nervous to try, but because, until writing this, I’ve never thought to. Perhaps this is attributable to a decidedly unadventurous disposition; it never occurs to me to pop a strange object in my mouth – particularly brightly coloured, fleshy ones hanging off bushes, which tend to make me think “Ooh, poisonous”, rather than, “Yum, dinner.” Maybe I’m missing out on a whole new way to experience the garden. Well that’s a chance I’ll just have to take.

Pernettya mucronta, as you’ll usually find these plants labelled in the nursery or garden centre, is now classified in the genus Gaultheria, of which the most well-recongnised is Gaultheria procumbens, or wintergreen (the berries of which are edible and, according to James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution, rather tastier). The various cultivars of P. (or G.) macronta have either only male or only female flowers on them (known as dioecious), and so you will need one of each to ensure a decent crop of berries. There are some hermaphrodite varieties, so it pays to check the label carefully. Whatever their sexual proclivities, they’re of the ericacious family, eschewing alkaline or chalky soils and being most at home in acidic conditions. A periodic top dressing with ericaceous compost, needles from the Christmas tree, or dousing from a watering containing a sachet of sequestered iron would keep them in fine fettle. Shade is not a problem for this shrub, although you’ll notice they flower best (and consequently develop the most berries) on the parts exposed to the sun.

*Further discussion on the toxicity or otherwise of this plant can be found here, at the website written from the garden of splendigly named Paghat the Rat Girl. It’s just as inconclusive as this post, but better referenced.