July 19, 1999 ATHENS, Ga. -- A three-year-old boy in the middle-Georgia town of Fitzgerald is alive and well thanks to the quick thinking of a county extension agent, two botanists from the University of Georgia's Herbarium and a UGA College of Agriculture initiative primarily designed to save farmers millions of dollars from crop loss from plant diseases.
The child apparently ate four berries from the toxic American nightshade plant on Tuesday. When his sister told their parents, the couple, Jim and Jennifer Dennis, called the state Poison Control Center, which referred them to county extension agent Tim Hall, who took digital pictures of the plant and sent them over the Internet to the Herbarium for identification. From the time Hall sent the image to the time he had an identification in hand, less than seven minutes had elapsed.
The call was somewhat unusual for the Herbarium, which has been at the University of Georgia since 1926 and is now a part of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. Still, the rapid identification of plants is becoming more and more important for the facility, located in the Miller Plants Sciences Building, which houses some 226,000 plant specimens.
Five minutes after they first heard from Hall, acting curator Reed Crook and Patrick Sweeney, project coordinator for an in-progress vascular plant atlas of Georgia, saw the first of five digital images on their computer screens. They almost immediately identified the plant.
"I knew it was the genus Solanum americanum, which is indeed toxic," said Crook. "We subsequently checked our sources and specifically the AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants and confirmed by the photo in the book that it was Solanum americanum, or the American nightshade."
The plant is a relatively common weed, though most people don't know it is poisonous or that it can even be fatal to small children. Related to the tomato and potato, the American nightshade has small, tomato-like fruits that are green at first and then turn dark blue or black as they ripen. Crook said that even green-skinned tomatoes and potatoes have very small concentrations of mildly toxic alkaloids that can cause intestinal discomfort if they are not cooked.
Crook e-mailed county agent Hall, a 24-year veteran, with the news that the plant was poisonous, and the parents then rushed the child to the hospital where he was treated and cured before the poisonous plant berries could be digested.
"We are listed as a resource with the Poison Control Center in Atlanta, and so this is a way in which county extension agents can get to us quickly," said David Giannasi, director of the Herbarium and associate professor of botany.
The equipment used by Hall to transmit the image back to the UGA scientists for analysis was made possible by the Distance Diagnostics through Digital Imaging Project, a joint venture of the plant pathology department and the Office of Information Technology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which equips Cooperative Extension faculty across the state with computers, digital cameras and microscopes and trains extension faculty to use these tools to assess plant diseases and pest infestations.
Each year, Georgia farmers and county extension agents submit more than 4,000 diseased or pest-infested plant samples to UGA for analysis by plant pathologists. Traditionally, plant samples were mailed or hand-delivered to the plant-disease clinics for evaluation. Extension agents have been using digital imaging for long-distance diagnosis of plant disease and crop pest problems for some time, but the technology has been less used for identifying possibly poisonous plants.
"All I can say is thank goodness for digital imaging," said Hall. The child was taken to the emergency room at Dorminey Medical Center in Fitzgerald, spent the night in the hospital and was released the following day in good health.
"We can't guarantee that we can identify all of the plants sent us in this way, but there's a pretty good chance we can identify most things," said Crook. "For some plants, we might need the actual specimens, but for many common plants, this is a wonderful way to identify plants with a minimal effort."
"There is no single way to treat someone who has eaten a poisonous plant," said Crook, who just completed his doctoral degree in plant taxonomy from UGA and will be leaving soon.
"Different plants have different compounds. And animals eat poisonous plants, too. In the past few days, we've worked with the School of Veterinary Medicine on identifying plants that horses and cattle have eaten."
The Herbarium has been heavily involved in identifying plants all over Georgia, and has done recent identification surveys at Fort Gordon, Fort Stewart, Stone Mountain Memorial Park and most recently, Callaway Gardens.
Giannasi said that county extension agents should remain the first line of inquiry for people wanting to know the identity of suspicious plants. But in emergency situations, the UGA Herbarium will continue to act as another line of defense against the toxins of the plant world.
For more information about Distance Diagnostics through Digital Imaging, visit the project Web site (http://www.ces.uga.edu/distance_diagnostics/index.html).
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