Agave (Agave americana) is also commonly known as century plant or maguey. It is a Mexican native and is widespread throughout California and parts of the Southwest. The plant has lance-shaped leaves about 3 to 4 feet long, with sharp tips on the margins. Sometimes there are yellow or white stripes in the leaves. Agave is a quintessential Southwestern plant. In Cuba and Venezuela, people stun fish by tossing crushed agave leaves it into pools.
California buckeye (Aesculus californica) appears throughout California and has been planted farther north. The Pomo and other Native American groups stunned fish with the buckeye. Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), the buckeye of the eastern states, apparently was not used to stun fish. The buckeye seeds are known to be toxic to humans if eaten, containing a saponin glycoside, aesculin. Though not known to kill, the results of human poisoning can include vomiting, weakness, lost coordination, diarrhea, and paralysis. Native Americans in California learned to leach out the water-soluble toxins and then eat the buckeye seeds. The big brown seeds would be soaked for three days in the stream so the aesculin would leach out. Some historians say this is how the people discovered that the plant stunned fish.
Amole, also called soap root (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is a member of the lily family found throughout the West, generally from California north to Oregon. To stun fish, crush up the entire plant—the bulb and leaves—and toss it into the fish pool. The bulb, however, contains the most saponins. I have heard that jolting fish with amole depends on “quantity.” So toss in a lot of the crushed plant, even in a small pool. The abundant saponins in the bulb stupefy fish.
Durango root (Datisca glomerata) is found along streams and in wet areas from the mid-elevations of the Sierra Nevada in California south into the mountains of Baja California. The plant grows up to 7 feet tall, with a hollow stem and jagged saw-toothed leaves. It was apparently a commonly used and somewhat well known fish poison among Native Americans in California. The specific toxin is unknown, but the entire plant is used, preferably when in flower or in fruit. It is crushed and tossed into pools to stun the fish. When in flower, the plant has a superficial resemblance to marijuana.
Turkey mullein (Eremocarpus setigerus) is a low-growing member of the Euphorbia (or spurge) family. It is widely dispersed throughout the West and Southwest, usually in poor soils, and even along roadsides. It appears as a low, whitish mound. Typically, it grows about 2 feet wide and about 1 foot high at the highest point of the mound. There is no relationship to the herb mullein (Verbascum thapsus), though the leaves of turkey mullein appear somewhat like little furry mullein leaves. The primary toxin is probably phorbol, a diterpene alcohol, but other toxins in the plant are possible. The very fact that it is a Euphorbia family member demands caution since most members of this group are toxic to some degree.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a well-known member of the Euphorbia family. The relative toxicity to humans with this Christmas ornamental is widely known. Usually, if ingested, the results would be vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pains. Death is rare, but at least one recorded fatality happened 1919 in Hawaii. Poinsettias grow wild in Mexico, but people in Southeast Asia have also used them to zap fish.
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) appears in the wild throughout the United States. In the spring and early summer, the green husks of the immature walnuts have been known to stun fish. Nelson Coon (author of the Dictionary of Useful Plants) states that the green walnut husk contains “a depression agent which has often been used … to immobilize fish.” I spoke to Linda Sheer who grew up in rural Kentucky where they practiced many of the “old ways.” She said they crushed whole green walnuts and put them in bags. They placed the bags in likely sections of streams where fish did indeed float to the surface. Sheer warns toxins should be used sparingly, to avoid depleting life from entire sections of water.
Wild cucumber (Marah horrida and related species) is a member of the gourd family that is somewhat widespread throughout the West. Each year, the sprawling vines of this plant sprout anew from the massive underground root. (The plant is also commonly known as manroot). The vines grow over other vegetatioan, and when the spiny green fruits develop, they typically hang from the various trees and bushes like Christmas ornaments. The entire plant is extremely bitter, and poisoning is rare because of this. Though the whole plant is poisonous, the seeds are the most toxic. Ingesting 25 to 30 seeds can kill a person. The whole fruits of the wild cucumber have been crushed and tossed into the water to stun fish, though the results are somewhat mixed. The toxins responsible may be cucurbitacins, which are the compounds produced by saponic glycosides, common in the gourd family.
Wooly blue curls (Trichostema lanceolatum) are related to the Salvia plants. According to Dr. Leonid Enari, my botanical mentor, wooly blue curls were one of the most popular fish poisons in the past. Native Americans of the western U.S. would drop the crushed leaves into the water. These leaves then released their toxins that interfered with a fish’s ability to extract oxygen from the water. People collected the stunned fish downstream; any missed on the first pass could be recovered an hour or so later. Wooly blue curls did not kill the fish but only stunned or stupefied them. Many Native Americans would collect the wooly blue curl plants when available, dry them and save them for the winter.
If you ever need to “live off the land,” fish will invariably be a part of the equation. And ancient methods of gathering fish can help set the table. A line with a hook was only one of many methods. People, such as the Native Americans, used nets, dams, and spears to catch fish. They also used wild plants with particular toxins to stun the fish. The techniques were similar for most of these fish-catching plants. The entire plant was beaten or crushed and tossed into a pool or enclosure with slow currents. The stunned fish were then quickly scooped up by hand or nets.
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However, these methods depend on several variables, such as water temperatures ranging from icy cold to warm. Other issues include large volumes of rapidly flowing water; various sizes of the actual pools; the amount of sunlight hitting the water; the pH (acidity) of the water; and the unique “chemical soup” of water with other animal species, etc. In other words, the many variables of the water can affect the plant toxins considerably.
And to put a full disclaimer to the above roundup of wild plants for taking the fight out of fish: Be aware that poisoning (even natural poison) is illegal in most states. Check your local laws.
This article originally appeared in ‘Survivor’s Edge’ Summer 2017. To order a copy, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.
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