3 min read
Eastern poison ivy

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Warmer weather is sending people in droves to participate in many outdoors activities. In many of these instances, people are in close contact with plants. When camping, hiking, playing in the yard and even working in flower beds and gardens, people should watch for poisonous plants that can cause harm.

Plants and Characteristics

Some of the common poisonous plants people see are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Dr. Nancy Loewenstein, an Alabama Extension specialist of forestry and wildlife sciences, said there are a few more species besides these that can cause rashes.

“While most people don’t react to English ivy (Hedera helix), individuals who are sensitive to it can develop a rash after working or playing around it in the yard.” Loewenstein said. “Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is covered with stinging hairs that cause a painful sting if touched. Skin irritation resembling hives may result. Spurge nettle, also called tread softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) is another plant with stinging hairs to avoid in the woods.”

Unless someone is severely allergic, generally nothing will happen to a person just touching poison ivy, oak or sumac. Andrew Baril, an Alabama Extension regional agent of forestry, wildlife and natural resources, said problems occur with these plants when someone crushes the leaves or stem and releases the oils.

“If the oil is allowed to come in contact with skin, a rash will develop for most people,” Baril said “If one does come in contact with the oils, it is best to wash the area with warm water and a mild soap. Don’t scratch the area; just lightly remove as much of the oil as possible.”

Baril said that in his opinion, encountering the oils while burning the plants is worse than touching or crushing them.

“Smoke encountering the eyes, and inhalation into one’s lungs is extremely painful, and could lead to hospitalization and even death,” Baril said.

Avoid Poisonous Plants

Baril offers a few tips on how to identify poisonous plants and precautions to take to avoid them.

  • Poison ivy and poison oak have leaves with three leaflets, often with a reddish spot where the leaflets attach to the stem.
  • Do not burn any part of these plants.
  • Always wear long pants and close-toed shoes when in wooded areas.
  • Consider application of a preventive lotion, such as Ivy Block, before going outdoors.
  • Always wash clothes immediately upon return from walking in wooded areas.

Animals and Humans React Differently

Some plants cause reactions or death in humans, but do not have the same effect on animals. Some animals are deathly effected by some plants, but they do not hurt humans.

“Humans need to look out for poison ivy, poison oak and sumac and don’t touch it,” Baril said. “Animals don’t normally have a problem with the touching these plants, but if your dog rolls in a patch of poison ivy and you rub the dog, it will get on you.”

According to Baril, dog hair can carry the oils found in these plants.

“They can bring them into a home and the oil can get on carpets, rugs, furniture or wherever they lay,” Baril said. “Oils can remain potent for over a year. Therefore, dogs should be bathed after they had been seen playing in the plants.”

Don’t Eat Wild Plants

Baril cautioned that touching a poisonous plant can be bad, but eating one can be even worse.

“If you don’t know for sure what plant you are handling, don’t ingest the plant,” Baril said.

Loewenstein said there are some wild plants that are edible but a person should be sure what the plant is before they eat it.

“Unless you’re 100 percent sure you’ve identified a plant correctly and made sure it is edible, don’t eat any wild plants,” Loewenstein said. “Some plants have fruits that look safe to eat, but are not. A few examples are Chinaberry and the Chinese tallowtree.”

More Information

For more information of poisonous plants, visit Alabama Extension online or contact your county Extension office.


Featured Image: Paul Wray, Iowa State University, Bugwood.org

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