What About Poisonous Plants?

A friend who is planning a camping trip recently asked me, “what should I bring to treat poison ivy?”

As you might expect, the main thrust of my reply was to deny the question’s assumption: do everything in your power to avoid getting a rash in the first place.

The first step is to learn now, ahead of time, what these poisonous plants look like so that you can recognize them in the field.  The best way to accomplish this, particularly for young kids, is to take advantage of outdoor camps or nature programs offered by the Scouts, local parks, other outdoor organizations, etc.  That way your kid (or you) can see the real thing before either of you are on your own in the woods.

poisonous plants pamphlet

For sale at Mountain Wanderer 

You might think that bringing some kind of poisonous plants identification card with you is the thing to do.  It’s not. When you start traipsing around in the woods, you rarely think: “Oh no, that may be a poisonous plant!  Let me take my pack off, dig past the jerky and trail mix, toss my rain jacket to the side, and find that pamphlet to check this stupid plant.”  This is even less likely of a scenario if you are to come across a snake in your path.

Check it: if you didn’t already know, at least vaguely, what you were looking for, then you wouldn’t know when to consult your card.  But if you did, you wouldn’t need the identification card in the first place!  (Yes, philosophy friends, I found a way to work Meno’s Paradox into a blurb about poison ivy…)

Now I have nothing against field guides, and I think those quick identification cards are as convenient as can be.  But they serve a different purpose — they help amateur birders (for example) figure out what they’re looking at.  People like that are in the woods primarily to see and identify various kinds of life in the wild.  That’s why they’re out here to begin with. But if you’re going to the woods to hike, camp, fish, or whatever, you won’t have that ID pamphlet in hand all the time. And you won’t want to have it.

So learn what these things look like ahead of time.  There are three very common plants that are poisonous on contact (although there are many more that are poisonous to ingest).  Again, in person is best, but I’ll do what I can here:

Poison Ivy

poison ivyThis sucker has leaves of 3 leaflets, sometimes with a mitten-like appearance.  The stem tends to be hairy, with no thorns.  There are many local variations of poison ivy, so it’s good to get to know your local area before going bushwhacking.

Poison Oak

poison oakThis plant is less common than poison ivy, with two major types, Atlantic and Pacific.  Like poison ivy, it has leaves of 3, but the leaflets look like oak leaves, rounded off.

Poison Sumac

poison sumacThis one is easier to identify but is much less common.  It has leaves with an odd number of leaflets paired up (not staggered) with one on the end, anywhere from 7-13 per leaf.  This plant forms a shrub and is woodier than the other two.

It would be good to check out the following two sites for more information if you’re planning a trip, although nothing beats having someone show you the real thing (these are also where I lifted the images):



Now what?

Poison ivy and poison oak, in particular, look similar to lots of other plants.  And sometimes it’s really hard to avoid contact with plants when…outside.  So, my advice is to always wear pants when you anticipate low-level plant cover. 100 degrees? Don’t care. Wear pants. Particularly on the east coast these plants are concentrated to wooded areas where there is a lot of shade.

What happens if you do have contact and develop a rash?    The source of the rash is an oil secreted by these plants and so it can persist on clothing which has made contact, and even spread from hands to other regions after recent contact.

SO WASH YOUR HANDS FIRST!  Chances are your hands have made contact with the oils by way of scratching, and may be spread to more delicate regions (face, etc.)  Then wash the area affected, wash and/or replace any clothing that might have made contact.  Try not to scratch it.  If it got on your face or other sensitive areas, keep a close eye on it as you may need more advanced care.

Some say that calamine lotion or even rubbing alcohol helps the itch.  I haven’t found that.  If I get a rash, I’m going to be miserable for a week or two and will likely need prescription lotions given my sensitivity to the oil.  That’s why so much of my efforts are placed in keeping my wits about me and preventing contact in the first place.

Have fun out there!


One thought on “What About Poisonous Plants?

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