IDENTIFYING POISONOUS PLANTS
If you have not already done so, it’s recommended to first check out the Eating Plants for Survival post which goes more in depth about the basics of plant identification. Identifying poisonous plants is essentially the same as edible ones. An individual with strong knowledge of not only edible plants but also poisonous plants will have a considerable advantage in a true survival situation. This skill is also useful and practical in a non-survival situation. If you were camping, would you know which plants may be poisonous or irritating to touch? Few people posses the knowledge to identify poisonous plants besides poison ivy/oak. Plants will vary by region so it’s always a good idea to start with plants specific to your region. Check out US Army Survival FM 21-76 Appendix C which is linked later in this post to view dozens of pictures and descriptions of poisonous plants. The following guide is an excerpt directly from the US Army Survival FM 21-76.
HOW PLANTS POISON
Plants generally poison by–
- Ingestion. When a person eats a part of a poisonous plant.
- Contact. When a person makes contact with a poisonous plant that causes any type of skin irritation or dermatitis.
- Absorption or inhalation. When a person either absorbs the poison through the skin or inhales it into the respiratory system.
Plant poisoning ranges from minor irritation to death. A common question asked is, “How poisonous is this plant?” It is difficult to say how poisonous plants are because–
- Some plants require contact with a large amount of the plant before noticing any adverse reaction while others will cause death with only a small amount.
- Every plant will vary in the amount of toxins it contains due to different growing conditions and slight variations in subspecies.
- Every person has a different level of resistance to toxic substances.
- Some persons may be more sensitive to a particular plant.
Some common misconceptions about poisonous plants are–
- Watch the animals and eat what they eat. Most of the time this statement is true, but some animals can eat plants that are poisonous to humans.
- Boil the plant in water and any poisons will be removed. Boiling removes many poisons, but not all.
- Plants with a red color are poisonous. Some plants that are red are poisonous, but not all.
The point is there is no one rule to aid in identifying poisonous plants. You must make an effort to learn as much about them as possible.
ALL ABOUT PLANTS
It is to your benefit to learn as much about plants as possible. Many poisonous plants look like their edible relatives or like other edible plants. For example, poison hemlock appears very similar to wild carrot. Certain plants are safe to eat in certain seasons or stages of growth and poisonous in other stages. For example, the leaves of the pokeweed are edible when it first starts to grow, but it soon becomes poisonous. You can eat some plants and their fruits only when they are ripe. For example, the ripe fruit of mayapple is edible, but all other parts and the green fruit are poisonous. Some plants contain both edible and poisonous parts; potatoes and tomatoes are common plant foods, but their green parts are poisonous.
Some plants become toxic after wilting. For example, when the black cherry starts to wilt, hydrocyanic acid develops. Specific preparation methods make some plants edible that are poisonous raw. You can eat the thinly sliced and thoroughly dried corms (drying may take a year) of the jack-in-the-pulpit, but they are poisonous if not thoroughly dried.
Learn to identify and use plants before a survival situation. Some sources of information about plants are pamphlets, books, films, nature trails, botanical gardens, local markets, and local natives. Gather and cross-reference information from as many sources as possible, because many sources will not contain all the information needed.
RULES FOR AVOIDING POISONOUS PLANTS
Your best policy is to be able to look at a plant and identify it with absolute certainty and to know its uses or dangers. Many times this is not possible. If you have little or no knowledge of the local vegetation, use the rules to select plants for the “Universal Edibility Test.” Remember, avoid —
- All mushrooms. Mushroom identification is very difficult and must be precise, even more so than with other plants. Some mushrooms cause death very quickly. Some mushrooms have no known antidote. Two general types of mushroom poisoning are gastrointestinal and central nervous system.
- Contact with or touching plants unnecessarily.
Contact dermatitis from plants will usually cause the most trouble in the field. The effects may be persistent, spread by scratching, and are particularly dangerous if there is contact in or around the eyes.
The principal toxin of these plants is usually an oil that gets on the skin upon contact with the plant. The oil can also get on equipment and then infect whoever touches the equipment. Never bum a contact poisonous plant because the smoke may be as harmful as the plant. There is a greater danger of being affected when overheated and sweating. The infection may be local or it may spread over the body.
Symptoms may take from a few hours to several days to appear. Signs and symptoms can include burning, reddening, itching, swelling, and blisters.
When you first contact the poisonous plants or the first symptoms appear, try to remove the oil by washing with soap and cold water. If water is not available, wipe your skin repeatedly with dirt or sand. Do not use dirt if blisters have developed. The dirt may break open the blisters and leave the body open to infection. After you have removed the oil, dry the area. You can wash with a tannic acid solution and crush and rub jewelweed on the affected area to treat plant-caused rashes. You can make tannic acid from oak bark.
Poisonous plants that cause contact dermatitis are–
- Poison ivy.
- Poison oak.
- Poison sumac.
- Rengas tree.
- Trumpet vine.
Ingestion poisoning can be very serious and could lead to death very quickly. Do not eat any plant unless you have positively identified it first. Keep a log of all plants eaten.
Signs and symptoms of ingestion poisoning can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, depressed heartbeat and respiration, headaches, hallucinations, dry mouth, unconsciousness, coma, and death.
If you suspect plant poisoning, try to remove the poisonous material from the victim’s mouth and stomach as soon as possible. Induce vomiting by tickling the back of his throat or by giving him warm saltwater, if he is conscious. Dilute the poison by administering large quantities of water or milk, if he is conscious.
The following plants can cause ingestion poisoning if eaten:
- Castor bean.
- Death camas.
- Physic nut.
- Poison and water hemlocks.
- Rosary pea.
- Strychnine tree.
See US Army Survival FM 21-76 Appendix C for photographs and descriptions of these plants.
Plants may poison humans and/or animals by ingestion, contact, and inhalation/absorption. In a survival situation, ingesting a poisonous plant may dramatically reduce the odds of survival by creating various medical conditions up to and including death. Remember a general rule about mushrooms and just avoid them. Become familiar with techniques and treatments in the event of coming into contact with a poisonous plant. Finally, remember, when in doubt, try and avoid the coming into contact/eating the plant. Only in the most extreme of survival situations will eating plant be the difference between life and death.