Sundays are for friends and family here in Lebanon. And so a group of friends (since most Dutch in Lebanon are pretty much family-less) got together somewhere near Beirut for a Sunday lunch/picnic in the ‘wild’. The kids were running wild (as they should, when you’re in the wild) somewhere between the olive trees and the vines and who knows what else, while the adults discussed the finer aspects of ‘getting older’, and commented on a certain trend recently observed around us related to Lebanese men and their ‘restlessness’ once they get over fifty.
The mood was mellow, the weather soft, the conversation good and the wine flowing.
Until one of the children came back with a serious issue. His mouth was burning. We did not pay much heed to that. After all, what could possibly be wrong. But he kept drinking water and spitting it out, and complaining about pain in his mouth. Well, did you drink anything? No. Did you eat anything? No, just some green berries. Green berries? What green berries? Some green berries in the field.
Dutch moms in general don’t really panic quickly.
"Well honey," says the mom, "whydon’t you go off and get some of those berries, and we’ll see what the issue is."
And sure enough, the boy back came with some green berries.
Did you swallow them, asked the mom? No, I just chewed them. You’re sure? Yes, I’m sure, replied the boy, as drool was running down his chin, and his lips were starting to swell.
I recognized those berries, because Santa gave me this book on Lebanese plants last Christmas. They were the berries of the Palestinian Arum (Arum palaestinum) And the green berries are, as most parts of the plant, poisonous when digested.
Poisonous berries, huh! But how poisonous is poisonous? (typical Dutch question, you don’t want to run to the ER and look like an idiot) And so everyone was googling Arum palaestinum on their phones.
‘Burning sensation’, one read out loud.
‘Mouth and throat irritation, resulting in swelling, and profuse saliva production,’ another one read as the poor kid was drooling copiously.
'Could cause irregular heartbeat, breathing difficulties, upset stomach and, in severe cases, death.’
Now why did you put those berries in your mouth, his mom said! He had just chewed on them, to try, he replied.
“Oral fixation, a stage all men go through,” another friend helped out.
“Don’t you know they could be poisonous?” mom adds.
“Nonsense,” says one of the Lebanese man present. “Give me those berries, I think they’re used against snakes or something. That’s what I remember they told me.” And he chews a berry. Sure enough, pretty soon he is complaining about a ‘burning sensation in the mouth, swollen lips and a profuse saliva production’.
Did we go to the ER? The nurse amongst us suggested we check for diluted pupils, and irregular heartbeat, otherwise “don’t bother.” And so we continued our picnic with a drooling child and adult. After all, you can tell the doctor at the ER that a child – erroneously - tried the berries, he's just a child. But what shall you tell the doctor about the grown-up man?
Typical men, I thought, but when we drove back home, my daughter complained of a rash on the palm of her hands. It seems she'd been trying to pick the plant. I tell you, it's a dangerous place to live :)
And that was my Sunday in the wild.
The Arum palaestinum is, by the way, a quite common plant in Lebanon. It’s been around for some 40 million years (!?). All parts of the plant can produce allergic reactions, but unless you chop it up and put it in your salad (Hmmmm?), not likely to cause your death. (source, sorry, it’s in Dutch). Not birds or bees pollinate this flower, but little flies do.