American Survival Guide - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Larry Schwartz

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.