Thursday, March 10, 2011

Poisonous Plants Series Part 1 {Flowering Plants}

I cannot keep from saying again that Spring is coming! Soon, I'll be overwhelmed with blossoming foliage, sweet floral aromas, and gigabytes upon gigabytes of new flora photos. I found last year that, aside from photography, I love identifying plants, learning everything about them, and passing on that knowledge with the photos instead of just saying, "oh... here's a pretty flower." No... I like to say, "This is Bloodroot, and it's toxic. But did you know it was once used in toothpaste?"

But not all of our natural beauties are as nice as they look. Some are quite dangerous. And although this may not be news to you, I think it's always a good idea to have a refresher. And it's especially important for us to educate our little wilderness junkies. Remember, children love to stick things in their mouths. And they aren't just children. They're tiny humans, and this means they are susceptible to toxins in quantities a lot less than an adult. Also, as you'll see, sometimes it's our teenage risk-takers that are in much more danger. So here's a list of some of East Tennessee's most dangerous flowering plants.

Rhododendron / Mountain Laurel 
Severely Toxic - extremely dangerous even in small quantities

Since these shrubs are so similar in appearance and toxic nature, I grouped them together.  There are also many species (varieties) of each.  All parts of these plants are toxic, especially the leaves, blossoms, and nectar.

The first written account of Rhododendron poisoning dates back to the 4th century B.C. in which 10,000 Greek soldiers were poisoned from ingesting Rhododendron honey.

Identification: All characterized as shrubs, most in East Tennessee are evergreens. Rhododendrons (above left) have long, dark green, leathery, round-tipped leaves that curl cigar-style in cold temperatures. Their blossoms can appear in a range of colors, are large, and have an obvious five petal lobe.  Mountain Laurel (right) is typically smaller - looks much like a miniature Rhododendron. It's leaves are smaller, evergreen, pointed, and oval. The blossoms are much smaller, usually white or light pink, and have a five-lobed, tiny bowl appearance (below left).

Route: Ingestion (Human poisoning usually occurs through ingesting honey in which bees have collected nectar in Rhododendron dense areas. However, there are reports of children having been poisoned by eating the attractive flowers.)

Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, difficulty breathing, vertigo, difficulty swallowing. Although rarely fatal to humans, it can be if large enough quantities are eaten.

Toxic - potentially fatal in large quantities

All parts of this plant are toxic, especially the leaves and seeds. Famously, and foolishly, used as a hallucinogen by recreational drug users. Educate your teen on the dangers of ingesting Jimsonweed!

Jimsonweed, also sometimes called Jamestown weed, received its name for the British soldiers who were intentionally drugged in Jamestown, VA while attempting to suppress Bacon's Rebellion. The soldiers reportedly stumbled around for eleven days appearing to have gone insane.

Identification: Bush-like plant growing 3-5 feet tall with dark green leaves that are soft but jagged and toothed along the edges. Flowers are gorgeous and shaped like trumpets, with petals spiraling out from the center. Often the blooms are white with a violet center. The seed capsule forms in late summer or early fall and is easily identifiable as it takes the appearance of a medieval mace with a thorned, elliptical shape. At maturity, this capsule opens four chambers to release the small, brownish-black seeds.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Weak and rapid pulse, dilated pupils, dry mucous membranes, little to no urine production, blurred vision, hallucinations, fever, thirst, nausea, vomiting. Later - slowed breathing, convulsions, coma. Rarely - death.

Poison Hemlock / Water Hemlock
Severely Toxic - extremely dangerous even in small quantities

It's important to know that this type of hemlock is NOT the evergreen tree. Rather, it's a part of the wild carrot family. With both plants being similar in appearance and easily mistaken for the edible Wild Carrot and Caraway plants, I have grouped them together. All parts are toxic.

Famously known as the poison that caused the death of Socrates. For his execution, he was given an infusion of poison hemlock.

Identification: Both plants resemble Queen Anne's Lace (Wild Carrot) and Caraway, but Poison Hemlock (above left) is especially dangerous as it resembles these edible wild plants the most. To tell the difference between edible and poisonous, look for the identifiable spotted-purple stem (on Poison Hemlock) or striped-purple stem (on Water Hemlock). Both grow around 5 - 8 feet tall. Poison Hemlock has divided, lacy leaves, while Water Hemlock's (right) leaves are twice or three-times compound and often have a reddish tinge of color. Both have small, white, clustering flowers gathered in multiple groups. Although Poison Hemlock (below left) has one root tuber (like Wild Carrot) it tends to have an unappetizing fragrance when bruised, while Wild Carrot smells like carrots and Caraway has a spicy, appetizing fragrance (think Italian sausage). Water Hemlock's roots are lobed, often with 5 or more tubers.

Route: Ingestion - Water Hemlock is the most deadliest species as a single mouthful can be fatal. There have been reports of children being poisoned from just placing the hollow-stem of the Water Hemlock in their mouth for use as a blow-gun or whistle.

Symptoms: Because the toxins are different in each, the symptoms differ.

Water Hemlock: Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, tremors, confusion, weakness, dizziness, and drowsiness. Progresses to seizures, hallucinations, delirium, tingly-prickly sensation in the extremities, numbness of skin, coma, respiratory failure, and death.

Poison Hemlock: gastrointestinal irritation, nervousness, trembling, staggering, coldness of extremities, and slowed heartbeat. Progresses to coma, respiratory failure and death.

Poison Ivy / Poison Oak
Toxic even in small quantities

Both plants are very similar in appearance. Matter of fact, it's pretty difficult to tell the difference. Because of this, I've grouped them together. All parts contain the skin-irritating oil, even dead plants. The oil can remain active for up to 5 years.

Unless you live in an area where Poison Sumac is around, it's easy to teach your children "Leaves of three, leave it be."

Identification: Poison Ivy (above left) is a high climbing, overtaking, woody-stemmed, sometimes "hairy" vine. Leaflets are in threes, and are thin, bright, shiny and elliptical in shape. In the spring, new leafs may appear red (below left). Since Poison Ivy is a deciduous plant, it's leaves turn red and shed in the fall. Poison Oak (right) is similar in appearance, although it does not climb. The leaflets are also in threes, thicker, dull green and are lobed (like an oak tree's leaves).

Route: Contact Dermatitis and/or Inhalation

Symptoms: Coming into contact with the toxic oil of these plants can cause blistering and intense itching at the contact site. Some people are more susceptible than others. Rash and itching usually appear within 24 to 48 hours of contact, but can appear in as little as 4 to 12 hours.

Animals (most importantly your hiking canine friend) are usually not affected by either, but can carry the toxic oils on their coats.

In case of contact, wash the area immediately in soap and water. Seek medical attention if any swelling occurs, especially of the eyes, as this may indicate a more severe allergic reaction.

NEVER burn poison ivy or oak to get rid of it. The oils can be vaporized during the burning process and can either "rain" back down on you or be inhaled via smoke into the lungs. This can cause severe respiratory reactions and lung irritation.

Toxic - potentially fatal in large quantities

Horsenettle isn't really a nettle at all.  Rather, it belongs in the Nightshade family - right next to your edible tomatoes and potatoes. The Nightshade family contains at least 2,800 species of plants - some edible, some deadly. Horsenettle is a toxic one.

All parts of this plant are toxic, but mature plants (especially the berries) contain the most toxin.

Identification: Prickly-thorny, herb-like plant with alternating, lobed, dark, dull green leaves.  The leaves and stem have "stickers" on them.  The plant flowers white to purple, and grow cherry tomato-sized fruits starting green and turning yellow with maturity.

Route: Ingestion

Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, salivation, drowsiness, abdominal pain, diarrhea, weakness, respiratory depression.

In the case of poisoning by any plant or substance, you should contact the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

I have to add this. These are plants found in our region - East Tennessee. Your area may differ, your poisonous plants may differ. Also, none of this information should be taken or used as medical advice. It is for educational purposes only. Please seek medical attention ~ not blog-help ~ if you or someone you know has ingested, inhaled, or otherwise come into contact with an unidentified plant.

Photos not watermarked with Random Joy Photography courtesy of Kris H. Light of East Tennessee Wildflowers or