If you grew up in this country, you've probably somewhat familiar with our three most common poisonous plants: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. We don't have to worry about poison oak in the Northeast, as it generally grows only in the Southeast and along the West Coast. But poison sumac and poison ivy are both native here, so they are definitely plants to look for and to avoid.
It's good to be reminded of what these plants look like, but keep in mind that there are variations depending on where the plant grows. Eastern poison ivy typically has three shiny green (or red in the fall) leaves on one small stem. Poison sumac is a shrub with multiple leaves on each stem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website has photos that can help you learn to identify these plants.
Remember that it doesn't take much exposure to develop a rash. If you brush against the leaves and bruise them, they will exude a noxious oil, and just a tiny bit of this oil can cause a rash. With "an amount that is less than one grain of table salt, 80 to 90 percent of adults will develop a rash," according to the CDC.
You can be exposed to the oil by touching the plant itself or by touching tools, clothing, or even animals that have the oil on them. And, very important, you can be exposed by burning these plants. Inhaling plants particles in smoke can cause a very severe allergic reaction or even deadly breathing problems. Don't forget: you may be careful to avoid the smoke, but it can also harm a neighbor who isn't aware.
Another poisonous plant that is a common nuisance for us is the wild parsnip, sometimes called poison parsnip. These plants grow along roadsides and in other un-maintained locations. The flower is very pretty, looking similar to Queen Anne's Lace, only yellow. Do not be fooled — this is not a good choice for a wildflower bouquet. The sap from this plant, when it interacts with sunlight, can cause a rash that is similar to second-degree burns. If you need to clear brush or mow where this plant is growing, be sure to wear clothing that fully covers your arms and legs, and wash that clothing as soon as you are finished. If you are using a string mower, be sure to wear eye protection.
It's a good idea to learn about all of the plants growing in your yard. Of course, many of us like to go hiking or do other outdoor activities elsewhere, but knowing the plants closest to where we live is a good start. You can take photos and compare them to photos in a plant identification book, or you can take them to a garden center for help.
Sometimes the whole plant is poisonous, and sometimes just a part of it. For example, eating the leaves of the rhubarb plant can be deadly. A substance present in the leaves can cause burning in the throat, breathing difficulties, and even kidney failure, depending on how much is eaten. On the other hand, eating the stalks of this plant is perfectly safe, as anyone fond of rhubarb pie already knows.
You can find a good list of the most common poisonous plants in the Northeast by going to the State University of New York Upstate Medical University's website, www.upstate.edu and typing "poisonous plants" into the search field. This list is especially useful because it tells which part of the plant is poisonous.
Any of us who are parents know all too well that children love to explore the world by putting things into their mouths. Foraging is a wonderful skill to have but it is important to teach your children to avoid all berries, nuts, mushrooms, flowers, and other plant parts, whether they are growing outdoors or in a pot in the house, unless you have positively identified the plant and know it's safe.
If you or a companion is accidentally exposed to a poisonous plant, it is important to immediately wash the skin, clothing, and any tools exposed with soap and water. If you are exposed to poisonous smoke, get to fresh air immediately and seek medical help. For ingestion of a poisonous plant, get all pieces out of the mouth as soon as possible and seek medical attention right away, either at a hospital emergency room, or by calling the Poison Hotline, 1-800-222-1222. Do not induce vomiting unless told to do so, but it's okay to take a few sips of water or milk.
Danny Ballentine works in the Grace Cottage Hospital Emergency Department. He earned his B.S. in Wellness and Alternative Medicine from Johnson State College and his Master of Physician Assistant Studies from Franklin Pierce College. He joined Grace Cottage in 2012.