A walk in the woods is good for your health, but interacting with these 7 plants can turn your fun day out into anything from a sore butt to a stay in the morgue.
This article includes a few of the most common hazardous wild plants you may comes across in the USA. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list and does not include some common toxic plants.
Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
This plant is essentially the wild version of your friendly cultivated garden parsnip you might find in the store. It is an introduced species from Europe, being common in most states of the US although absent in the far South East. It is a plant of medium height, with a yellow umbel flower and pinnate leaf structure, images below for reference.
The problem comes not from the plant itself being toxic to eat, in fact as you may expect the roots of wild parsnip are edible and delicious, just like their cultivated version, the issue arises from the plants phototoxic sap.
(Who said vegetables were healthy, this one can send you to the burns ward!)
Wild Parsip is a member of the Apiaceae genus of plants (the Carrot and Celery family) Most of this family contain some levels of Furanocoumarins, chemical compounds which are designed to deter insects and small mammals from consuming them. Wild Parsnip, Giant Hogweed and several others have noticeably high enough levels to cause potential serious injury.
In humans Furanocoumarins can cause extreme skin photosensitivity, a condition known as Phytophotodermatitis. This negates the Melanin in your skins ability to protect you from ultraviolet light, causing rashes and blisters, which are in essence really bad sunburn.
When coming into contact with Wild Parsnip, wear gloves, long pants and sleeves and avoid getting the sap on your skin. If you do get exposed wash the area with soap and water and stay out of the sun as much as possible until you are sure there is no reaction. If you experience burns, cover up, stay out of strong sun and you can use creams and lotions to sooth the burned area.
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Lily of the Valley is a herbaceous perennial of shady woodland. You may be familiar with the distinctive flowers and smell from commercial floral arrangements.
(Toxic Lily of the Valley – As seen at your local Home depot plants section)
Most cases of suspected poisonings arise in spring when the plant is mistaken for one of the foragers favourites, Ramps (Wild Leeks), as the plants have similar shapes leaves and occur in the same habitat. One easy way to avoid this confusion is to use your sense of smell; Wild leeks are the name suggest smell strongly of onion/leek whereas Lily of the Valley does not.
Lily of the Valley contains a number of toxic compounds including Saponins which cause gastric symptoms, but the main compound of note is Convallotoxin, which causes irregular slow pulse rate and can lead to heart attack or heart failure. Despite a low number of acute poisoning cases it is most certainly a deadly toxic plant.
Woody or Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
This common member of the Tomato (Solinaceae) family is widespread across Northern North America. It is commonly known as Woody or Bittersweet nightshade, but also as Climbing Nightshade, as you will most commonly find it growing up fencing, other shrubs and large plants.
(Bittersweet nightshade – no making salsa from this toxic “tomato”)
Many of the Solinaceae are delicious edibles (Tomato, Potato, Bell Peppers etc) but the family also contains some pretty potent toxic species, such as the fatally toxic Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) for which this plant is commonly mistaken for in online searches.
Happily Bittersweet Nightshade is unlikely to cause fatal poisoning, with only 2 published fatalities that I can find in the last 100+ years, both of which were children who mistook it for some sort of edible berry (they do look like tiny tomatoes when ripe).
It is however a plant that can give you some nasty symptoms such as vomiting, gastric distress, dizziness, racing heart etc, and continues to pose a threat of poisoning especially in children because of it’s commonality, its appearance and it’s often proximity to other edible fruit bearing shrubs and plants.
Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculate, C. douglasii etc)
There are 4 Cicuta species in the USA most commonly Cicuta maculata in the East and Cicuta douglasii in the western states, all commonly known as Water Hemlock.
(This Carrot family plant is Umbel-ievably toxic)
Water Hemlock is the most violently toxic plant found in North America, it has accounted for numerous deaths of both humans and animals. It is another member of the Apiaceae (Carrot family) and it’s consumption in humans is generally from confusion between it and other edible wild species such as wild parsnip, wild carrot etc. The Apiaceae genus is a high risk one to forage if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can literally be gambling with your life. Never eat any wild plant unless you are 100% sure of you identification, and you are experienced enough to make accurate ID’s, even some experienced foragers I know won’t go near this plant family.
Cicutoxin, the deadly compound in Water Hemlock acts like a stimulant to the nervous system and causes convulsions, rapid onset seizures, vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, coma and death. The symptoms arise as quickly as 15 mins to a few hours from consumption, and its possible death can occur as quickly as within an hour depending on the amount consumed.
The widespread distribution, extreme toxicity coupled with how common it is and it’s close appearance to edible plants make this the most dangerous plant to humans in the USA.
Jimson Weed (Datura stamonium)
Jimson Weed, also known as Moonflower or Datura is an introduced species, now found in nearly all states. It is possible for people to accidentally consume this mistaking it for something edible like wild cucumber, or for children to put it in their mouths by accident. The majority of the poisoning cases however occur through people trying to consume the plant as a recreational hallucinogenic.
(This high might make you say bye-bye)
People have been known to eat the leaves or seeds, or make a tea from the plant to try and achieve a recreational high. This is not at all recommended as the plant is highly toxic and can cause fatal poisoning. In a case from 2005 from the Wisconsin medical journal a number of adolescents consumed the plant and although none died they all had fairly severe poisoning and unpleasant psychiatric symptoms. One boy was found crawling in the road by the police department, picking at objects on his body that weren’t there and screaming obscenities.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
Some of you may be familiar with Mayapple from your foraging guides, or online articles, indicating it as a good edible. This is true in part, as the flesh of the fully ripe Mayapple fruit is edible and delicious. On the other hand this plant is commonly known as American Mandrake, and all parts of the plant apart from the fully ripe fruit (in limited quantities) is very toxic. Because of its potential edibility there is strong potential for human poisoning to occur from ingestion of the under ripe fruit, the seeds or other parts of the plant through ignorance or confusion.
(Edible right?, except for most of the time, when most of it isn’t)
This article by my wife Megan from Aayus Holistic Health Services can give you the low down on Mayapple. https://megankerkhoff.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/the-hunt-for-wisconsins-rarest-fruit/
Mayapple contains Podophyllin which can cause fatal central nervous system depression in large enough doses. An extract from the plants root is used to treat genital warts.
Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron radicans, Toxicodendron vernix)
Poison Ivy, along with it’s larger, equally toxic cousin Poison Sumac are woody shrubs in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae).
(Make sure not squat on this little guy)
This is a big one, over 350,000 cases of Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis (mainly from Poison Ivy) are reported in the USA each year, the true figure is probably higher. Urushiol is a mixture of Pentadecylcatechols which bind to skin on contact, causing severe rashes and blisters which are very painful. In severe cases it can even cause anaphylactic shock and death, on the other hand 15-25% of people are largely immune to the effects or Urushiol.
Most exposure happens through walking through or brushing against patches of the plant without knowing what it is. If you realise you have become exposed the best remedy it to scrub the area thoroughly with dish soap and rinse several times for the first few hours. This can avoid or greatly mitigate the reaction. To treat the reaction, baking soda or oatmeal baths, and herbal Jewelweed lotion have been seen to help, commercial pharmaceutical products are generally ineffective. Another great option for both Poison Ivy and Wild Parsnip rashes is Plantain ointment.
Be extra careful when peeing outdoors, the last thing you want is a rash in some of your more sensitive areas.
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