Unless you have an expert with you on a hike, my recommendation is to stay away from eating anything you find on the trail. When it comes to poisonous plants, don’t even touch them.
Poison Oak and Poison Ivy
These plants contain oils that when rubbed onto the skin can cause an intensely itchy or painful reaction. Their poisonous oil, called Urushiol, gives these plants’ leaves a waxy, shiny appearance. If you are hiking in the woods in the summer, it is best to wear long pants, especially if you go off trail. These plants are most found on hikes near creeks, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The key to their identification is the signature three leaves.
A popular maxim for avoiding poison ivy and poison oak is, “leaves of three, let it be,” referring to the plant having three leaves on a single stem.
Poison oak has a different leaf shape than poison ivy, but still grows in triplets. The leaves are green in the spring and summer, and in the fall the leaves turn yellow, orange, and red. The leaves are lobed like oak leaves, but poison oak leaves grow three to a stem whereas common oak leaves are one per stem. The plant typically grows a foot or two off the ground but can grow taller. Oak and poison oak are often found together, where oaks are trees and poison oak is at the base of the tree and sometimes part way up the trunk.
Poison sumac grows as a tall shrub or a short tree. It has slender leaflets with no hair on the stem. The top of the leaflet is the only single leaf, while the rest are paired off. This plant grows in swampy areas and turns bright red in the fall. As with poison oak and poison ivy, it can be found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.
First Aid. These plants get their itchy properties from their oils. Since it takes 15 to 20 minutes for the plant resin to react, it is unfortunately easy to transfer the oil from the initial contact point on the body to other areas before you start exhibiting symptoms. People have been known to rub their eyes accidentally after contact, which does not turn out well. To prevent this, wash the area with water and soap immediately. The longer you wait to do this, the more ingrained in your skin the oil becomes, and the itchier you will be. Itching can be relieved with calamine lotion. Try not to scratch, as this will spread the poisonous oil.
This plant is normally found out on mountain hikes. It can grow upwards of six feet tall by late fall, but typically it grows to two to four feet in height. The leaves are long, thin, and serrated, and grow in alternating patterns.
The leaves and stem are covered with hundreds of little hollow hairs, which break off at the least bit of contact and cause a burning sensation. Carefully remove any of the hairs still stuck on the skin.
Like poison ivy, these plants can cause an itching sensation. Fortunately, the effects typically wear off after a few hours, though in more extreme cases itchiness can last for a day. Use calamine lotion or baking soda to neutralize the effect of the chemicals from the plant. Wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt is the best prevention.
I’m going to make this one very simple! Don’t eat or touch mushrooms, regardless of how hungry you are, or how much they look like the ones that were on your pizza last weekend. The only exception is if you have an expert with you, who you know is an expert. There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms, and many of them can make you ill to the point of hospitalization, while others can kill you with just a nibble.
- “It’s ok to eat if you can peel the cap.” —Really? How come it’s easy to peel a Death Cap?
- “Mushrooms growing on wood are safe.” —Wrong. Some are deadly, like the Funeral Bell.
- “If you see other animals eating them, they are ok for humans to eat.” —Nope. many animals can eat poisonous fungi with no ill effects at all.
Berries: Not so edible.
Every now and again you might run into some wild berries on the trail. Most berries that look like edible berries may indeed be edible, but there are a few that can fool you. An example is the Nightshade which are small, shiny black berries that upon quick glance may look like blueberries, but they are toxic. Nightshade grows throughout the U.S. Just a handful can contain deadly alkaloids and other bad stuff.
If your “blueberries” don’t taste sweet, spit them out quickly and hope you didn’t swallow much. Better yet, leave the berries to the bears, they need them.
Spring hiking is a beautiful time of the year when the flowers and trees are in bloom with green shoots and lighter greens radiating beauty. For some, that unfortunately means pollen is in the air. If you know you have a pollen allergy, always be sure to carry an antihistamine in your pack. You never know if one of the new species you encounter on a trail might cause your throat and eyes to swell up. Consult your doctor on what precautions are best for you.