Take a deep breath and smell the clean air in the great outdoors. Green leafy plants, gorgeous trees, and an abundance of flowers make camping outside fun and beautiful, but also danger lurks just around the next pretty plant.
What are poisonous plants you find while camping and how to identify them?
Poisonous plants that you may run into while camping and how to identify them:
- Poison Ivy – You can identify poison ivy by the cling vine structure that it uses to climb trees and other objects as well as the iconic three-leaf formation coming out of the vines.
- Poison Oak – Poison Oak is identified by the bushy shrub-like clusters on the ground. The leaf formations are similar to poison ivy, but the structure of the leaves looks like oak leaves.
- Poison Sumac – Identifying Poison Sumac can be tricky. Poison Sumac usually will have an open look, the leaves will be in doubles rows, and the leaves will be an oval shape. Other varieties of Sumac are often misidentified as Poison Sumac.
- Poisonwood – Poisonwood is found in Florida, and identifying it is relatively easy. The leaves will often look droopy like the tree hasn’t had enough water and have a distinct yellow border. The tree trunk will often have black blotches running out. This is the poison known as urushiol.
- Aconite – Aconite can cause an allergic reaction when touched but can kill you if eaten. This plant can be identified but by the tall long leaves and the helmet-shaped flowers that are usually blue or purple. This plant also produces a fruit that looks like dry pea pods.
- Poison Hemlock – While it is possible to absorb poison through the skin, this plant is most dangerous if eaten. You can identify poison Hemlock by the tall (6′-10′) stem that lacks the hairs of the similar but not poisonous Queen Annes Lace. Both will have white flower clusters, but the Hemlock will not have the colored flower in the middle. Also, the Hemlock lacks the hairy look under the fern-like leaves that the Queen Annes has.
- Pokeweed – Pokeweed is dangerous if eaten, and most often it is dogs and small children that eat them. They can be easily identified by the long purple berry stems that make them so enticing to small children.
- Larkspur – Larkspur is poisonous when eaten. Larkspur is actually a beautiful plant and can be identified by the blue to purple colored flowers that are funnel-like at the base with a spread bloom at the end.
We have pictures and more details below.
Some of the more common poisonous plants you may find on your camping trip are listed here. If you touch, taste, or try to cook some of these plants, you will become ill and will need medical help. If you can’t reach an emergency room immediately, you call the National Poison Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 from anywhere in the United States.
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“Leaves of three, let it be.” Good advice! Poison ivy is a nasty clingy type vine with little feelers that dig into the tree, and solid green pointed leaves grouped in threes. Touching and breaking out from poison ivy is not fatal, but if you touch it, you will have a few uncomfortable weeks. The oil in the plants’ sap is called urushiol and causes itching irritation and burning when you touch it. The sap will stick to anything. Even if your camping gear comes in contact with poison ivy and you touch the contaminated spot on your gear, you will end up with a rash. Do not burn poison ivy to get rid of it. The oil vaporizes in the smoke and can be even more dangerous if inhaled. Inhaling the oil in the smoke will possibly cause a rash to spread throughout your entire body instead of just one spot on your skin.
If you are one of the lucky ones and poison ivy doesn’t seem to cause an allergic reaction, great, but don’t try it to see if you are superhuman and intentionally touch poison ivy. Once you have touched poison ivy immediately wash the affected area with soap and water. If the rash has broken out into sores, make a paste of baking soda and lukewarm water and put on the rash. Baking soda dries out the sores. Use calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to relieve the itching. Wash your clothing and any surfaces the plant touches.
Don’t scratch the itchy rash; you will only cause it to spread and possibly become infected. If you have a rash over much of your body, you swell up, or the rash develops on your face, seek medical attention at the nearest emergency room.
Poison Oak is grown in groups of three. It contains the chemical Urushiol in its sap. It differs from poison ivy and grows as a woody shrub. The leaves and stems are poisonous and will cause a rash.
Follow the same treatments as poison ivy. Wash the affected area with soap and water. If a rash has broken out into blisters or sores, make a paste of baking soda and lukewarm water. Place it on the rash to dry out the sores. Use calamine lotion or hydro-cortisone cream to reduce the itching. Do not scratch the rash, or it will become infected.
Poison sumac is a tree that can grow as high as 30 feet. Look for leaves that are nice and smooth around the edges. Stems of poison sumac are also nice and smooth, and grow about seven to 13 leaves along its stem. This tree or shrub also has Urushiol poison in the plant. You can spot poison sumac by its red stems and white tiny fruits growing among the leaves.
Wash the affected area with soap and water immediately after touching. If you already have sores, use baking soda and lukewarm water to make a paste. Spread the baking soda mixture on the sores to dry them out. Use calamine lotion or hydro-cortisone cream to reduce the itching. Wash your clothing or any other surface the Urushiol touched.
If you camp in Florida or other southern areas, avoid Poisonwood at all costs. The Poisonwood Tree is a 35-foot tall evergreen shade tree in the same family as the Manchineel tree, one of the most deadly trees in the world. A Poisonwood tree’s glossy green leaves are about 6-10 inches long and outlined in yellow.
If you are camping in the rain in the south, don’t take shelter under this tree. After the rain, the tree’s peeling bark spurts a sticky, substance called Urushiol resin. If the dark, drippy substance falls on your skin, you will break out into a horrible rash only treated with medical grade anti-itch creams. If you are a western camper but want to try your hand at camping in the south, and that’s okay, but avoid this tree. It is found in campgrounds in Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi. It’s a pretty tree, but deadly.
Wash the rash with warm water and milk soap, and use high quality, medical-grade anti-itch cream.
Aconite is a gorgeous plant recognizable by it purple-blue winglike flowers that grow in stalks. Pick it at your peril since the plant is laced with aconite poison. Touch the plant, and your skin will tingle or go numb. Don’t eat the plant or you will have diarrhea, vomiting, heart irregularities, coma, and possibly death. Symptoms usually begin within an hour of contact. Seek medical attention immediately if you touch or ingest the aconite (also called wolf’s bane or monkshood.)
You may think you are looking at a wild carrot when you see poison hemlock. Poison hemlock was used by the Greeks to kills those condemned to execution. Poison hemlock has a small white carrot-shaped root that you think is eatable. Best advice? Don’t eat it!
Wild carrots that are not poisonous have one bunch of flowers and one stem. Poison hemlock has branching stems with a similar collection of flowers to wild carrots, but the stems branch out.
Stinging Nettles love to live near water. Stinging nettles will give you a burning itching rash for about 7-minutes. They aren’t as bad as the effect of some poisonous plants, but it does hurt to get bit by stinging nettles.
Just like other poisonous plants, wash the affected area quickly and use calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching.
Pokeweed is a perennial plant that is large and grows up to 8 feet. There may be one to several branches growing from the crown of a thick, white taproot and contain a smooth, green to the somewhat purplish stem. Simple leaves grow along the stem, and flowers are green to white, and there are purple to almost blackberries on the plant. Do not eat; they are a food source for songbirds; this plant doesn’t harm the birds but is toxic to humans.
All parts of pokeweed and particularly the root are poisonous. Whatever you do, do not brew a tea from pokeweed roots or leaves. Don’t touch pokeweed with your bare hands. Chemicals in the plant can pass through your skin and enter your bloodstream. Ignore the claim that pokeweed root can be used for the muscles and joints, swelling of the nose, throat, and chest and help with laryngitis.
Pokeweed causes nausea, vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, and diarrhea. It can also lower your blood pressure, cause thirst, and give you uncontrolled urination.
Your best treatment for pokeweed poisoning is immediate medical care. Do not induce vomiting unless you are advised to by poison control. Once you are in an emergency room, expect a tube through your mouth into your stomach to washout the weed.
Larkspur is common in high-elevation camping areas, and cattle ranchers delay moving cattle into the high country until late summer. Death can occur within a few hours after ingesting larkspur, and all parts of the plant are toxic to humans. If you touch larkspur, you will itch, but ingestion leads to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and muscular spasms. Death can come from respiratory collapse or cardiac arrest.
This gorgeous bright bluish-purple flower contains diterpene alkaloids with a neuromuscular blocking effect. It inhibits the nervous system when ingested. You will see fields of larkspur, related to delphiniums in the higher mountain valleys early in the summer. They are beautiful to look at but don’t (as I discovered) pick these flowers.
Call the Poison Control Hotline if you inadvertently or intentionally eat the flowers of the larkspur. It’s best if you just leave them growing in the wild.
Camping anywhere is the best, but do take precautions when picking out a spot. Look for possibly poisonous plants and inform all members of your group. Have a first-aid kit with antibiotic cream and a source of water nearby. If you do touch or ingest any poisonous plant, the first thing to do is keep calm, then check out the injury, wash the injury, and use the antibiotic cream. Call poison control or get medical help when you can.
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