We are headed into the summer months here in Tennessee and many of us are planning on spending a lot of time in the great outdoors. Whether it’s summer projects or camping, when venturing into wooded or overgrown areas, you should take extra precautions. It’s not just mosquitoes you have to worry about; there are many dangerous plants out in the wild that can cause you, or a loved one, serious harm. Knowledge is power and the best way to avoid these plants is to be able to identify them before it’s too late.
Poison Ivy is probably the most notorious dangerous plant but also one of the easiest to spot. You might have heard someone use the phrase, “leaves of three, let it be.” Even though poison ivy can appear as a vine climbing up a tree or a short shrub, its leaves always come in clumps of three. If you are unsure if a three-leaved plant is poison ivy or something else with three leaves, just let it be. The leaves appear with one big leaf in the center and two smaller leaves shooting off the sides. The leaves can be either notched or smooth and have pointed tips.
It’s not actually the plant itself that causes the infamous allergic reaction but a substance called urushiol. This is nasty stuff. If just a small amount brushes up against you, it can trigger an itchy and painful allergic reaction that can last weeks. When working or playing in wooded areas wear long pants and sleeves. When you come inside wash your clothes and shower afterwards.
Disguising itself as an unassuming wildflower, the white snakeroot plant is an extremely dangerous plant. It’s native to central and eastern North America. It can grow over four feet tall and is topped with clusters of tiny white flowers. These flowers contain a toxin called trematol and can be fatal to humans if eaten.
While resisting the urge to eat wildflowers may make this plant’s toxicity easy to avoid, you can still get sick through secondary means. As settlers began farming here back in the early 19th century, thousands were killed by what was called “milk sickness”. That is, they ingested milk from cows that had grazed on white snakeroot. Symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness, abdominal discomfort, and if enough is ingested, death.
Poison oak is a cousin to poison ivy and the two are often confused. While they both contain the same blister-inducing substance, urushiol, the leaves of poison oak are not as smooth as poison ivy. Poison oak leaves are more lobed, resembling the leaves of an oak tree. If you remember the saying, “leaves of three, let it be”, then you will be able to avoid this plant.
Giant Hogweed is an invasive plant originating in the Caucus Mountains of Europe. These dangerous plants can grow over 10 feet tall and its sap can cause painful burns, scarring, and permanent blindness. Giant hogweed was first brought over to America in the early 1900s as an ornamental plant and it quickly spread. It has been confirmed in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and it may be on it’s way to Tennessee next.
Identifying giant hogweed may be difficult as it resembles Queen Anne’s lace or cow parsnip, but these can quickly be ruled due to size. Giant hogweed doesn’t produce flowers until it is 4-5 years old and 10-14 feet tall. Before it flowers, giant hogweed can be identified by purple blotches and white hairs on its stem.
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