[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 25 – Learning to ID Toxic Plants Part 1: 4 Toxic Plants to Teach Your Child to Identify
“An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”
-Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
It often can be intimidating to get started learning about plants. What’s safe? What’s not? Which are foolproof? Which are most versatile? One of the biggest worries I see is the fear of their kids getting ahold of a toxic plant. The best way to avoid this from happening is to give them knowledge.
You are going to know your child better than anyone else so always use your own judgement when introducing plants to them. If they are the type of child who wants to put everything in their mouth, even when they are old enough to understand the dangers then you will want to be very strict about not letting them handle plants without your presence.
Teach your children all the toxic plants that exist in your backyard. While this may take a bit of research on your part, being able to point out the toxic plants will empower children to know the difference between safe and unsafe plants. Teach them awareness and how to identify toxic plants and they will learn to proceed with caution before exploring plants.
Start by making a list of all known plants in your backyard. By doing so, you will be able to separate safe from toxic plants. If you’re unable to identify a plant, photograph it extensively: pictures of leaves, berries, flowers, leaf patterns, growing habits, etc. This will help you be able to identify it when you get back inside. You can also use a gallon or 2 gallon ziplock bag to contain a plant you are unsure of to bring a live specimen in the house to examine further without actually touching it.
The following are 4 commonly found toxic plants. Please note, this list will vary greatly with your region so check out your state/county/local resources for information on commonly found poisonous plants. These are plants that are common to my area (southern Illinois) and could vary greatly for you.
Poison Ivy / Oak / Sumac (Toxicodendron radicans, T. rydbergii, T. diversilobum, T. quercifolium, T. vernix)
“Leaves of three, let them be. Berries of white, take flight.” While this is a great rhyme to remember Poison Ivy, there are many plants that have leaves of three that are not harmful: Box Elder trees (the number one lookalike on our farm), Blackberry plants, and more. So what are some tips for identifying it?
Poison Ivy leaves can be red, green, yellow or a combination of those colors depending on the time of year. Leaves can sometimes have a blistered effect and have a glossy appearance though not always. The leaves are generally jagged and grow alternately on the stem. Stems can be red, yellow or green as well. Poison Ivy can grow as a vine, bush or in small tree looking form. They can be found growing in shade and in sunlight.
Berries appear in autumn, often after the leaves have died back. They grow in clusters, are small and green at first, turning cream white.
Poison Ivy vines are usually hairy, making them easy to spot in the winter when no leaf growth is available for identification. If you see a vine on a tree that is hairy, do not touch it as the poison oil is still present.
Poison Oak (T. diversilobum, T. quercifolium) is similar to Poison Ivy in appearance but is generally found on the West and East coasts.
Poison Sumac (T. vernix) is hard to find as it likes its roots in water. For a good description and pictures, go to the Poison Sumac website.
NEVER burn Poison Ivy, Oak or Sumac to get rid of them. Bag them up (wearing gloves and long sleeves) in trash bags. If you burn them, the oil is carried in the smoke, allowing it to be spread over your entire body if you come into contact with it. Even worse, if you breathe in the smoke the oils can cause a rash in your throat, bronchial tubes and lungs which can be fatal.
Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
This plant is the plant that killed Socrates and is one of the most well known toxic plants. It has been confused with Queen Anne’s Lace but with a bit of awareness, is easy to spot the differences of.
Poison Hemlock stems and leaves are not hairy while Queen Anne’s Lace is (the Queen has hairy legs is an easy way to remember this). Though both stems may have red or purplish red on them, Hemlock’s stems have spots of purplish red and faint vertical lines. The stems are also coated with a white bloom which can be wiped off. Both plants have a white flowers on umbels though Hemlock’s umbels are smaller and sparser than Queen Anne’s Lace. Queen Anne’s Lace also has a dark purple flower in the center while Hemlock does not.
Samuel Thayer has a nice write-up in his book Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants on Hemlock and Nightshade (see the next plant). I highly recommend both this book and The Forager’s Harvest if you are interested in finding edible wild plants.
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
Also known as Belladonna, this Solanaceae family plant is highly toxic. This plant is native to Europe, North Africa, Western Asia ,and some parts of Canada and the United States. It is not as easily found but is good to be aware of. Belladonna has flowers that are bell-like with 5 points that are purple or purple-brown. The flowers and berries grow singly in leaf axils and the berries are deep black and cherry sized.
Belladonna is often confused with Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) which is an edible plant. The flowers of Black Nightshade are white, smaller and grow in axillary clusters. The fruits, while also black, are smaller than Belladonna, usually pea-sized and duller in appearance.
Poke (Phytolacca spp.)
Poke berries are often confused for Elderberries even though they are not very similar in reality. For a full description on Pokeberry identification, see my thorough post that I wrote a few years ago.
What toxic plants do you have growing in your backyard? Have you taught your children to be aware of them and how to identify them? Tell us your experiences with bringing awareness to toxic plants in the comments!