HOW TO AVOID PLANTS THAT CAN RUIN YOUR DAY ... OR END YOUR LIFE.
Avoid plants that can ruin your day ... or end your life.
One of the most difficult and most critical things to know in the field is if something you find is edible. Mammals, fish and birds are pretty safe, as long as you avoid their glands. Plants are a completely different story. There are so many varieties that the average person doesn’t have, or know, the keys we know for animals.
This article will help you recognize the more common plants that can irritate your skin, make you sick or outright kill you.
These plants won’t kill you—but you might wish they did.
They can hurt you, even when you are not looking for something to eat. You might simply be walking through the woods or clearing a campsite at the end of the day. They look like any other plants but can give you blisters, rashes or generally irritate your skin.
Appearance. Poison ivy can take the form of a shrub or bush, or it can grow as a vine along tree trunks or limbs. It can be found in most of North America in both open fields with bright light and in shaded areas (such as wood lots) and even in urban areas. It takes the form of three leaflets that grow from a common stem (although this can vary at times). Depending on the season, the leaves can vary from red in the spring to green as the plant matures. It has yellow or green flowers and berries that range from white to green-yellow. The old adage, “Leaflets three, let it be; berries white, a poisonous sight,” is still a useful tool for identifying poison ivy out in the undergrowth.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. An oil in the sap of the plant causes a severe itching reaction shortly after contact. As it soaks into the skin, rashes and even blisters can form. The rash, if it appears, can last between one and three weeks but will go away on its own.
Treatment. As soon as possible, preferably within 20 to 30 minutes, wash the skin with cool, soapy water (hot or warm water will open the pores, which will let the oil get into your skin faster) to remove the oil. Do not scratch it, because this will only spread the oil.
Appearance. Poison sumac can grow as a shrub, but it can also grow as large as a small tree. It is found mostly in the eastern and southeastern regions of the United States. It prefers very wet areas and is often found along the banks of rivers or marshes. The stems contain seven to 13 leaves mostly arranged in pairs—not leaflets like its poison ivy and poison oak cousins.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects.
As with poison ivy, the symptoms for poison sumac can include swelling and redness of the skin and small or large blisters. But the symptoms can be more severe with poison sumac.
Treatment. Treatment is the same as for poison ivy or poison oak.
Appearance. Most often found in the western region of the United States and British Columbia, poison oak is similar in appearance to poison ivy, with three leaflets, but the leaves have rounded lobes like an oak leaf does. Poison oak grows as a bush, not as a vine.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. As with poison ivy and poison sumac, the oil found in the sap of the poison oak plant is what causes the itching sensation and blisters. Also, like its poisonous cousins, the plant does not have to be alive to affect you. The oil is active in dead leaves and plant parts, as well as in live parts. You don’t even need to come into contact with the actual plant, because contact with clothing or other objects that have the oil on them can transfer it to your skin and have the same effect. Treatment. The treatment for poison oak is the same as for poison ivy and poison sumac.
Appearance. The stinging nettle is an herbaceous plant with serrated leaves, 1 to 6 inches long, that come off the main stem opposite each other. It can grow as high as 3 to 7 feet in the summer and dies down to the ground in the winter. The leaves are soft and green but not shiny. The leaves and stems have tiny hairs on them. The hairs act like tiny hypodermic needles that inject histamine and other irritating chemicals into your skin. Stinging nettle is found all over the world and grows in moist soil.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. The mixture of chemicals injected by the tiny hairs on the plant causes a painful stinging sensation.
Treatment. To alleviate the stinging sensation, ointments with antihistamines or hydrocortisone are recommended. Calamine lotion applied topically might also help. As with other itchy reactions, avoid scratching the affected area, because this could break the skin, possibly leading to infections.
Appearance. Although pokeweed’s purple berries look tasty, you don’t want to add these to your diet. Pokeweed is an herbaceous perennial plant that can grow as high as 8 feet. It has simple, nonserrated green leaves that grow from green or purplish stems. The taproot is white, and the flowers range in color from green to white.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. A common test for edibility of wild plants is if the animals in the area are eating them. However, you don’t want to do that with pokeweed. Eating the raw fruit can cause severe stomach problems, vomiting or even convulsions. Its large taproot can kill people and livestock. Pokeweed is found in edge habitat such as cleared fields, along the edges of forest clearings and along fencerows.
Treatment. If you ingest pokeweed, you should seek emergency medical treatment immediately, because these severe symptoms can take effect in just a couple of hours.
While the plants above cause symptoms that are bothersome, sometimes in the extreme, they normally do not cause death. The ones that follow are much more toxic and cause lifethreatening symptoms that might include death.
Appearance. Water hemlock grows near water sources and in moist ground. It has multiple groups of small, white flowers that grow in umbrella-like clusters. Often mistaken for Queen Anne’s Lace (also called wild carrot), water hemlock does not have the characteristic red or purple flower in the center of each cluster of white flowers.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. Hemlock is the deadliest plant in North America. Eating water hemlock can cause nervousness, salivation, frothing at the mouth, muscular twitches, dilation of pupils, rapid pulse or breathing, tremors, violent convulsions—and death.
Treatment. Treatment includes gastric lavage and the use of activated charcoal to absorb the toxins. If convulsions or similar symptoms are present, the use of barbiturates might be helpful. Even so, seek immediate medical assistance.
tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and convulsions.
Treatment. If belladonna poisoning occurs, get medical help immediately. The antidote is the same as is used for atropine, one of its active ingredients.
Appearance. Also known as digitalis, foxglove is an herbaceous perennial. Its name derives from the ease with which the flower blossom can be slipped over the tip of a finger. The flowers are produced on a tall spike, are tubular and vary in color from purple to pink, white and yellow. Foxglove thrives in acidic soils, in partial sunlight to deep shade, in open woods and in woodland clearings. It is commonly found on sites where the ground has been disturbed (such as recently cleared woodland) or where the vegetation has been burnt.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. Foxglove poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundiced or yellow vision, the appearance of blurred outlines, drooling, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, weakness, collapse, dilated pupils, tremors, seizures and even death.
Treatment. Foxglove poisoning is a medical emergency, so call your poison control phone center immediately. Do not induce vomiting.
MAY APPLE (AMERICAN MANDRAKE)
Appearance. The May apple, also known as American mandrake (that name should make you take notice), is a very common plant in the North American woodlands. It prefers moist ground in shaded areas and is normally found in colonies, or groups, of plants that all grow from a common root. Although the average height for May apple is about 6 inches, it can grow as high as 12 to 16 inches and has between three and nine shallowly lobed leaves that grow from one or two stems. The fruit grows from the space between the two stems. In May (hence the name), it grows a whitish, yellow or red flower that will, over time, turn into an egg-shaped fruit that is either green, yellow or red, depending on the time of year.
ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT AND MOST CRITICAL THINGS TO KNOW IN THE FIELD IS IF SOMETHING YOU FIND IS EDIBLE.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. All parts of the May apple—including its root—are poisonous and should not be eaten. If ingested, it can cause salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever … and eventually, death.
Treatment. If May apple is ingested, seek medical help immediately. If that is not available, you should attempt to completely empty your stomach.
DEATH CAP MUSHROOM
Appearance. Found in North America from late August through late November, the death cap looks like the large, white mushrooms you find in your local supermarket. However, you won’t want to pick these fungi and add them to your menu.
Growing approximately 6 inches tall, the adult death cap mushroom has a smooth, flattened cap that is also 6 inches wide and pale white, yellow or greenish in color. There are white gills on the underside of the cap. The stem is smooth, with a skirt-like growth called an “annulus” about two-thirds of the way up the stem. The stalk is slippery or sticky to the touch.
The immature version is about 2 or 3 inches tall and has a dome-shaped cap (like a gnome’s hat), with a smooth stem. the cap flattens out as it grows to maturity. Death cap’s most distinctive feature is the ball-like sac (“volva”) found at the base of the stem, which is often hidden below the surface of the ground.
Symptoms and Adverse Effects. Eating just one death cap mushroom can kill an adult person. The effects normally appear within 6 to 24 hours and include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The toxins are found in all parts of the mushroom, so cooking or peeling them does not remove them. The toxins inhibit the formation of a protein in the liver and the kidney, which can lead to death. You might start to feel better after a day or two, but this is a false indication, because the toxin is already in your liver or kidney.
Treatment. If you are poisoned by a death cap mushroom, get emergency medical treatment as soon as possible. Be sure to take some of the mushrooms with you if you can. Treatment includes activated charcoal in the stomach to absorb the poison if this is done soon enough.
IT MIGHT NOT BE OK
Now that you know about some of the noxious and toxic plants you can run into during a trip in the great outdoors or even in your local park or woodlot, I hope you have an appreciation for how important it is to only touch or use plants you can identify with certainty and not go with the assumption that “it should be OK” to use or eat them.
And, of course, it is always a smart idea to carry a wild plant field guide, either as a book in your pack or in electronic form in your smartphone.
Pokeweed normally grows in large clumps of many plants, as shown growing here along a field edge.
Like poison sumac, pokeweed also has deep-purple stalks and berries, but the leaves are much broader and don’t come off each side of the main stalk.
Queen Anne’s Lace, or wild carrot, is edible and looks much like water hemlock. The most obvious difference is that Queen Anne’s Lace has a deep-purple flower in the center of the cluster of white flowers. Red flowers means “edible”; no red flowers means “poisonous.”
Above: Water hemlock grows like a bush and has multiple umbrella-shaped clusters of white flowers that grow from the end of a main stalk.
Above left: Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, has a purple flower and a green or dark-blue berry.