A Guide on Plants Poisonous to the Touch

Plants can ruin your day

Spending time in the woods is a wonderful way to help eliminate stress. There is not hardly anything so peaceful as the cold earth under your feet and the first light of dawn peaking over the ridge and through the trees. One horrible experience for many hunters is to get good and nestled in a hide of undergrowth waiting on a buck to walk by and to leave with only a terribly itchy rash caused by unidentified poisonous plants. This guide is meant to help you prevent that from happening. The old adage of “leaf of three let it be; hairy vine no friend of mine” can be helpful – but if you go solely by that then you’ll be avoiding many safe plants needlessly.

Poison Ivy & Poison Oak

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are plants that are often confused. They are both a part of the Toxicodendron genus and Anacardiaceae family. Both have three leaf sets that join together at a central reddish point and alternate on either side of the stem. The middle leaf is often slightly longer (this is more noticeable in Poison Ivy) than the two side leaves. Poison Oak is not quite as common as Poison Ivy as it prefers sandy soil. It seems to be most common in the East and Northwest.

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Poison Oak’s leaves can sometimes have rounded lobes – those that look rather similar to an oak leaf. Poison Oak leaves are not always lobed like oak. They can also be rounded, or scalloped, or toothed. Sometimes they are shiny and other times dull.  Sometimes serrated and sometimes not. Poison Oak can grow like a shrub, on stalks close to the ground, or on a vine. It’s not hard to see why this plant is so easily misidentified. These toxic plants will imitate the leaf shapes of the plants around it. If the plant gets full sun, it tends to grow like a shrub. If it is in the shade in the woods it tends to be a vine or on short stalks.

Poison Oak also has hairs on both sides of the leaves, whereas Poison Ivy only has hairs on one side. It can grow six feet tall and can have yellow, white, or green berries. In the fall, the leaves turn bright red and in the winter the leaves fall off. Poison Oak has leaves that are 2-8″ long and  1-5″ wide.

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Poison Oak and Poison Ivy lack thorns – which is a key feature in distinguishing it from wild blackberries (which can have three to five leaves per stem.) The vine can get up to 2″ in diameter and 40 feet long. The vine appears “hairy” from all the tiny roots sprouting from it. They are also often confused with the Box Elder. The Box Elder has leaves that are arranged opposite each other along the stem instead of alternating like on Poison Ivy. Climbing Hydrangea vines are also hairy, but their leaves only have a couple of shallow teeth or are smooth. The Climbing Hydrangea also has leaves positioned opposite on the stem.

Poison Ivy grows in all the US states except Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and California. It can grow 4′ tall as ground cover on stems or as a hairy vine. Its berries tend to be a greyish white. Poison Ivy can grow in shady areas but tends to prefer more sunlight, so you’ll find it more often on the edges of the woods. The leaves can be 1-4″ long, but in great conditions can double that. Poison Ivy’s leaf shapes are just about as variable as that of Poison Oak.

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Poison Oak and Ivy Plants actually have quite a number of useful purposes. It can survive in fairly toxic soil that can’t sustain a lot of other plant life. This provides habitat and brush in which to hide for small critters and bugs. Over 50 native bird species use Poison Oak and Poison Ivy for shelter, nesting materials or the berries for food. Many insects consume the stalks and leaves. Deer, bear, elk, raccoons, horses, rats and squirrels will eat the leaves.

Many Native Americans utilized Poison Oak and Poison Ivy Plants. The Chumash Indians consumed the leaves, stems, and roots. They were able to do so by building up an immunity. Only 15% of the population is immune to the Urushiol Oil, their T-Lymphocyte cells simply do not recognize Urushiol. I built up an immunity to it over the years too. However, many people are extremely allergic to Urushiol, so I don’t recommend you trying to become immune. Many people report the opposite effect – overexposure causes them to be more sensitive, their T-cells recognize it very quickly and formulate an immune response quickly.

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When the skin comes in contact with Urushiol, it causes a chemical reaction with your skin that can develop into an allergy response. This can be as simple as redness or a patch of tiny, itchy, clear, blisters. For some, this goes away in a couple of days. For others, it can become a problem for weeks. These lesions can pop up within minutes to up to 21 days after initial exposure. Severe reactions include fever and difficulty breathing and occurs in 10-15% of individuals and these reactions require medical treatment usually in the form of steroids.

When you come in contact with Poison Oak or Poison Ivy Plants a great way to prevent an immune response is to remove the Urushiol. Changing your clothes and washing with dish soap (scrubbing for several minutes) and then rinsing with rubbing alcohol removes a great deal of the toxic oil.

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If you start to notice a bit of redness, then you can apply Lavender Essential Oil. Jewelweed (also known as Impatiens or Touch Me Not) is a native plant whose juices neutralize Urushiol. The Homeopathy remedy Rhus Tox in is made from extremely diluted Poison Ivy and can be helpful in alleviating the rash. Also after the rash sets in witch hazel can help in drying up the blisters. Aloe can help heal the damaged skin and apple cider vinegar can help alleviate the itching.

Poison Sumac

Another Toxicodendron is Poison Sumac. It grows like a small shrub or a small tree and branches out at the base. Poison Sumac Plants prefers wetlands and higher pH soil. It has berries that look similar to Poison Ivy’s, that are greyish white. Its leaves and bark are smooth. Poison Sumac has 7-15 leaflets per stem. The leaves are oblong with pointy tips and have red veins. It is a very pretty leaf! Each leaf is 1’4″ long and up to 2″ wide. They are arranged in pairs along the stem.

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Many people confuse Virginia Creeper with young Poison Sumac. While people who tend to be highly sensitive to Toxicodendron may find themselves slightly sensitive to Virginia Creeper, the Virginia Creeper is not generally considered a toxic plant. There are non-toxic varieties of Sumac. These prefer well-drained soil and have red berries in the fall.

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Poison Sumac berries grow in clusters at the base of the stem that hang down like grapes. Staghorn Sumac and Winged Sumac have red berries that grow at the tip of the stip in clusters that point up. Poison Sumac also has smooth and hairless stems whereas the non-toxic varieties tend to be fuzzy.

staghorn sumac

Poison Sumac has very high concentrations of Urushiol and many people consider it one of the most toxic plants in America. Its prevention and treatment are the same as with Poison Ivy and Poison Oak. It is not as commonly found as Poison Ivy or Poison Oak because of its preference for wetlands. There are connections between certain food allergies to severe Urushiol allergies. So if you have a bad reaction to pistachios, mangos or cashews, it probably would be best for you to avoid Toxicodendron!

Poisonwood & Manchineel

Is not a tree that is very often encountered by hunters – unless you’re in southern Florida. It is in the family Anacardiaceae, which is the family to which Sumacs and Cashews belong. The Poisonwood Tree is an evergreen flowering tree that produces Urushiol oil like Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.

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Poisonwood Tree grows to be 25-35 feet tall. The tree has a short trunk with long arching branches.  Its bark can vary in color from a greyish hue to dark reddish-brown, depending on the age of the tree and the habitat. Older trees tend to flake off the bark in patches. Poisonwood Tree bark also looks like it has oily patches, which is actually sap. The leaves are green and very glossy with the underside being duller. Each leaf has a bright yellow central vein. They grow in groups of about 5, but the number can vary a bit. It grows a cluster of yellowish orange fruit that hangs. This fruit is food to a large number of local and migratory birds. The endangered White Crowned Pigeon particularly seemed to be fond of this fruit.

Even the rainwater dripping off the leaves can contain enough Urushiol to cause an allergic contact dermatitis. In fact, only one billionth of a gram of Urushiol is sufficient to cause a reaction in most people. The Urushiol content in the Poisonwood trees leaves, bark and sap are 100 times more potent than other native plants like Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.

Another plant native to Florida is the Manchineel Tree, also known as Beach Apple. It’s also known by the Spanish name manzanilla de la muerte, which translates to “little apple of death”  Ingesting the fruit can be fatal. Every part of the tree is highly poisonous.

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Manchineel is in the family Euphorbia, which makes it related to the Poinsettia. The Poinsettia is toxic to consume, but the Manchineel is toxic even to touch. Many Outdoorsmen have mistakenly walked under this tree and the leaves simply brushing against their face was enough to cause temporary blindness. The milky white sap leaves burns on the skin. Hippomane mancinella, which translates to “little apple that makes horses mad.”

It grows amongst Mangos and its root system helps to stabilize the sand erosion. It can grow up to 49 feet tall. The leaves are about 2-4″ long and are shiny green.  Unfortunate individuals claim that the fruit is very sweet, but soon after swallowing it starts to burn your throat until you feel your throat starting to swell. Interestingly enough, the black-spined iguana is able to consume the fruit where many other birds and animals are not able to. Even more baffling, the iguana is not native whereas the native species are unable to consume its fruit.

Though there are no deaths recorded in modern literature, historically there are numerous accounts of the fatalities from this toxic tree. The Caribs were known to poison the water of their enemies with the leaves from the Manchineel tree. Famous explorer Ponce de Leon supposedly died from an arrow coated in Manchineel sap.

Parsnips & Hogweed

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Several plants mentioned in this section closely resemble one another. Wild Parsnip, Queens Anne Lace, Giant Hogweed, Poison Hemlock, Elderberry, and Angelica plants all have wide leaves with a tall stem and a cluster of pale flowers. Most act as biennials – meaning the first summer is spent growing their leaves and the second is for flowering. Several of those plants can be seen here.

Wild Parsnip, Cow Parsnip, and Hogweed plants are very toxic and very problematic when they come in contact with your skin.  Their sap contains toxins that cause severe burns when exposed to sunlight.  Giant Hogweed has the most severe reaction of the three and can even cause blindness.

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Wild Parsnips are found in most of the United States and are the only one on the list that can have yellow flowers. It is an invasive species. It prefers sunny areas and calcareous soil but is easily adaptable to the environment. The stem is grooved and hollow. Its leaves have saw-tooth edges and resemble celery. Parsnip is a root vegetable closely related to carrots. In fact, Parsnip looks like a pale carrot. It becomes very sweet if left in the ground until after the winter frost.  Parsnip root can be consumed raw or cooked and is very high in minerals particularly potassium. Wild parsnip can have yellow or sometimes white flowers in rosettes. It can grow 2-5 feet tall and has hairless, grooved stems. Great care must be taken in harvesting – proper identification and wearing gloves.

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Cow Parsnip, or Common Hogweed, is endangered in the state of Kentucky and is considered a special concern species in Tennessee. It can grow typically between 4-10 feet tall and has fuzzy, grooved stems. Cow Parsnip has thorns along its stem. Its leaves grow to be typically 1-1.5 feet wide and serrated. The palm-shaped, fuzzy leaves radiate at the end of the stalk in a semi-circle and are divided into three segments. Cow Parsnip blooms in May. It has white lacey flowers that grow in a flat top cluster and can be nearly 1 foot wide. There will be 15-30 rays per cluster of flowers. For most people, just touching the leaves of the Cow Parsnip will not result in any blisters – it takes getting the “juice” of the stems and leaves on your skin.

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Giant Hogweed is an invasive species that is native to Asia. It grows regularly to 6′ tall and can reach up to 18′. The stems are thick, hollow, have ridges and purple spots. Contact with the leaves causes phytophotodermatitis, which means burns and blisters when the area is exposed to sunlight. Its leaves can grow up to five feet in width. The smooth leaves have deeply incised lobes. Giant Hogweed has umbrella-shaped flower clusters that can grow over two feet in width. There can be 50 or more rays per flower cluster.

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The other plants that look very similar need to be mentioned. Angelica is not toxic to touch and is only toxic when consuming extremely high doses of the root or essential oil. Its stems and roots are edible. It actually is very helpful medicinally for menstrual issues as well as digestive and respiratory, but great care needs to be taken in harvesting since it so closely resembles Poison Hemlock. Angelica can grow up to 9 feet tall and has a smooth, waxy, purple stem up to 2.5″ in diameter. The leaves are compound and can be up to 2 feet wide. Angelica has softball sized flower white flower clusters.

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Poison Hemlock is deadly even if only a small amount is ingested. Its toxins can suffocate the victim in as little as 15 minutes. Native American’s once used Hemlock to poison the tips of their arrows. It typically grows between 3-8 feet tall and has a hollow, hairless, waxy stem. The stems have many branches and have ridges and purple spots. Poison Hemlock smells musty, almost like a mouse. Its leaves are bright, shiny and fern-like. Poison Hemlock leaves can be a foot long and 4″ wide. The white flower clusters are loose and lack the purple heart at the center. They are flat topped and are on all branches.

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There are a few varieties of Hemlock. Spotted Water Hemlock grows about the same height and has smooth, hollow stems. It also can have purple spots or stripes. Water Hemlock has toothed, oval leaflets. Its white lacey flowers branch off the main stem.

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Queens Anne Lace is an invasive species. Some people are sensitive and have similar burns and blisters as with the other species mentioned. Queens Anne Lace is very toxic when consumed. It grows up to 4 feet high. Queens Anne Lace has feathery leaves with fine hairs on them. Its stems are branched and hairy. Its dense, white flowers can be 5″ across. What is most helpful is locating the dark “heart” at the center of the flower cluster. This helps to differentiate it from Poison Hemlock.

elderberry

Black Elderberry looks much more like a woody shrub than any of the others. It too has a white cluster of flowers. These flowers can grow up to 8″ across and the shrub can grow up to 8 feet high. The leaves are compound and can have up to eleven elliptical leaflets. Syrup made from the berries is a phenomenal tonic and immune booster. Its leaves are serrated and form on opposite ends of the stem, unlike the alternating leaf pattern of the Water Hemlock.  The berry clusters droop where they connect to their woody stems. This is helpful in differentiating it from the Dwarf Elderberry whose berry clusters stand upright.

Nettles & Stinging Flowers

The Common Nettle (also known as the Stinging Nettle)  and the Wood Nettle are two other native plants to look out for. The leaves and stems are covered in tiny hairs. Many of these hairs are soft and do not sting. But these Nettles also have many hairs whose tip breaks off and acts as a needle injecting multiple chemicals into the skin causing a painful sting. The beautiful green leaves can grow from one to six inches long. They are widely oval with coarsely toothed edges.

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Nettle grows up to 3-4 feet tall in the summer and dies down in the winter. Stinging Nettle tends to be slightly taller than Wood Nettle and is found throughout the US. Its flowers can be yellow, green, white, or purple. Stinging Nettle has leaves that are opposite each other whereas Wood Nettle has leaves that alternate. Wood nettle has flowers on the top of the plant and Stinging Nettle has flowers on the sides of its stems.

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Nettle is a frequently foraged herb. It tastes very similar to spinach and is high in nutrients such as Vitamin A, C, Manganese and can be up to 25% protein. By soaking the leaves in water the stinging chemical are removed. They should not be harvested after the plant starts flowering as it changes chemically and can cause digestive issues. Medicinally, Stinging Nettle has been harvested to treat kidney and cardiovascular issues among other things.

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The False Nettle, Snakeroot, and Clearweed VERY closely resemble Stinging and Wood Nettle but lack the stinging hairs. Being able to tell the difference is very important when you are out in the woods.  Their leaves are very similar in shape. Clearweed is more smooth than Wood Nettle, False Nettle, or Stinging Nettle. And Snakeroot is somewhere in the middle as far as roughness.

Pilea pumila, 2015

Later in the year, the stem of Clearweed becomes rather translucent and flexible, which makes it more easy to distinguish it from its counterparts. Snakeroot has flowers at the top and Clearwood and False Nettle have flowers along the sides of the stems. When the Snakeroots flowers are fully opened, they resemble actual flowers much more so than any of these – but before they are fully opened it can be a little hard to tell!

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False Nettle, Snakeroot, and Clearweed lack the stinging hairs and their leaves are paired in opposites along the stem. False Nettles leaves are slightly fuzzy and have a rough appearance. Other plants that rather resemble these are Self Heal, Marsh Hedge Nettle, Horehound, White Deadnettle, and Hemp Nettle.

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Scorpionweed is found primarily in desert regions. It is a beautiful small purple flower. It got its name not because of the sting it leaves, but because the flower is top heavy and curls over much like a scorpion tail. Poodle-dog Bush is found in California. It stinks, but it has really pretty purple flowers on a long stalk. It also has tiny hairs that cause stinging blisters. Stinging Lupine also grows along the coastal region in California. It has tiny purple or dark pink flowers shaped in a whirl and stiff hairs that sting the skin. It will also cause birth defects if eaten by cattle.

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Tread-softly, also known as Finger-rot or bull-nettle, is primarily found in Florida but is all over the Southeast. The beautiful white five-lobed, trumpet-shaped flower sits on stalks covered in large spiky hairs. The seeds come in small spike covered pods that bob-white quail and other songbirds love. Its leaves are lobed and similar to an oak leaf. The roots are edible – but they can be four feet deep underground.  The leaves too when cooked are edible. They are harvested for many uses: insomnia, scorpion stings, brain function, diabetes etc.

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