You’re hiking along the Appalachian Trail, one of your favorite pass times when you decide to stop for a picnic lunch. As your setting up your things, a by passer stops to discuss the trail and begins to look worried. You question his precarious look and while he assures you that he could be wrong, he believes that the plants surrounding your beautiful picnic look a lot like poison ivy. And just when you thought you had created a beautiful picnic hike, it takes a nasty turn for the worst. Here is a list of the most common poisonous plants you may encounter and how to minimize their damage if you come into contact.
The most common and well known of the poisonous plants, poison ivy will do worse than cramp your summer style, it will create a red rash that is characterized by blisters or pox’s that will rise away from the skin. I myself have had poison ivy several times since it lies along the sides of may hikes and roads. The oil from the rash (urushiol) can cause a great deal of swelling and redness around the area of contact. Many times the rash can look streaky or clustered depending on where the oils came in contact with your skin. While the rash is not contagious, it can be very tempting to itch the rash, but don’t! Normally the rash will still contain the infectious oil and could spread to other areas on your skin if you break the blisters. The main problem with poison ivy is that it can come in many different forms. The plant can have a reddish glossy tint but also may not. It can be a ground shrub or a climbing plant. The main identifying quality is that the leaf has three leaves. If you see any plant with three leaves, steer in the other direction. If it is too late and you have already gone trudging through it the best thing to wash your exposed areas with water as soon as possible. While this may not guarantee you not getting the rash, this will surely minimize the amount of oil left upon your skin. I have been exposed to poison ivy a couple times in my life so I am easily prone to getting it again. I recommend always covering as much skin as possible, staying on the trail, washing off your legs with water after any hike, and always being aware of what you are walking through.
There are two main types of poison oak, Atlantic poison oak and Pacific poison oak. Both contain the same infectious oil as poison ivy, urushiol, but can look different. Atlantic poison ivy is green and grows in an upright shrub structure. The leaflets can have white spectacles and can be hairy. The pacific version can come in more forms and drastically can change appearance throughout it’s summer phases. It can be a thick shrub or small tree. This version can tend to be shinier than its Atlantic counterpart, but helpfully its identifying character is also three-leaflets just like poison ivy.
Luckily not a common plant, Poison sumac can easily become confused with its more common safe cousin, the Staghorn sumac that has red berry-like flowerings and thinner and more jagged leafs. Poison sumac grows only in moist and wet areas and does not have hair on its stems like the Staghorn. It grows as a tree of its own and has 7-9 leaves per leaflet and if you can see the white flowers you are far too close. Luckily this one is fairly rare unlike poison ivy but will give you the same kind of rash.
While most people know about poison ivy, poison parsnip is less known but in my opinion should fear more. It has become a huge problem, as it is an invasive plant that is very hard to get rid of. There is only a short period of time in which the plant can be removed before it begins to flower. If it is attempted to be removed after the plant has flowered, it will spread like wildfire to the surrounding areas. Poison parsnip is a stock-like plant that flowers like a yellow crown of compound individual yellow flowers. It looks similar to poison hemlock which looks like the safe common giant hogweed with white flowers that we see growing in fields of undeveloped land. Another reason why poison parsnip is so nasty is the reaction it has with your skin. Unlike the previous poisonous plants that have an oil that reacts to your skin, poison parsnip has a chemical called psoralen that causes phytophotodermatitis. This happens when the psoralen on your skin comes into contact with sunlight and creates a burn of sorts. Even after winter the burns can reappear a summer later when exposed to strong direct sunlight. It is most common on the sides of roads and in open fields growing together. If the crown is yellow or burnt yellow (late summer phase) stay away and do not make contact with your skin. This plant is one you should just learn to identify to safe yourself some nasty side affects.
By Carolyn Dean