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Poisonous Plants: Learn the Basics

I enjoy identifying local plants and studying their natural history. They are a huge source of nutritional, medicinal and, on occasion, toxic substances.

Death camasAs a Wilderness Medical Institute instructor and former NOLS field instructor, I’ve learned fascinating details of how plants fit in their habitat, how they interact with local fauna and what they can tell me about the soil, the weather and the health of the ecosystem.

Like any living creature, plants can defend themselves—some by tasting bad, others with thorns and irritating sap which can cause pain, itching and rashes.  Sampling the plant for taste or food can expose one to poisons. 

MonkshoodOn a short walk recently in the local Wyoming sage and juniper woodland, as well as streamside, I saw several beautiful and dangerous plants. One was larkspur (shown at bottom), which has a cardiac glycoside that can affect the heart, death camas (above, right) with its toxic alkaloids that can affect the nervous system and monkshood (left) with the alkaloid aconitine, a potent neurotoxin that can be absorbed through the skin. (Note: Snape uses monkshood in one of the Harry Potter movies, the Nazis used it on poisoned bullets and, as a common garden plant, it’s a source of accidental poisonings.)

Cow parsnipI also found some cow parsnip (right), which looks like water hemlock, another plant with a potent neurotoxin, cicutoxin. One small bite of this can kill a child. 

At this point, you may be worried that plants are dangerous. Rest assured, most plants are not and accidental plant poisonings are rare. The simple solution to avoiding an accidental plant poisoning is to not eat a wild plant, certainly not anything you can’t identify with certainty.  Keep your eye on your toddlers, especially if they like to sample everything in their environment.

If possible, learn to identify your local plants and what we know of their benefits and dangers. Plant guides are an excellent place to start your learning, and many herbariums will have a section devoted to dangerous and edible plants. You can learn to avoid the toxic plants and perhaps even enjoy the simple pleasure of adding a bit of green to a backcountry meal.

If you do eat something toxic, take some comfort in knowing that ingestions are usually small and not harmful. Immediately after eating something poisonous you can induce vomiting. For those patients exhibiting any signs of illness or altered mental status, vomiting is not advised. Evacuate from the backcountry as soon as possible and check with poison control (1-800-222-1222).

Tod Schimelpfenig, EMT-I
Curriculum Director, Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS
Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine

[All images courtesy of the National Park Service.]

Posted on at 3:13 PM

Tagged: NOLS, WMI, Wilderness Medicine Institute and poisonous plants

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