Summer is around the corner and throngs of visitors are expected to visit Virginia’s parks and natural areas this year. The flora of the Commonwealth is renowned for its beauty and diversity, attracting tourists from around the world. A plethora of colors and shapes await photographers, hikers and families that flock to Virginia’s rivers, mountains and beaches. Hidden among the abundance of harmless, pretty sprouts are some that merit caution and a little extra respect. Virginia also has quite a number of poisonous species. Before you plan your next adventure, be sure to read the following. It might save you some unpleasant ailments – even your life.
This list is not comprehensive. It highlights some of the most common and some of the most dangerous plants found in the state. For the sake of convenience the plants are ranked in three general levels of toxicity: annoying, sickening and deadly.
Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac
These three plants are prolific party poopers. Poison sumac is almost exclusively a wetland plant and tends to be mostly east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Poison ivy is by far the most common. Each plant contains the oil urushiol which causes an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. Only a lucky 15 percent of the population is resistant to its effects. Poison ivy is frequently found along the edges of woodlands, disturbed areas and basically everywhere you want to hike. It is recognized easily by it compound leaf made of three leaflets and its main stem covered with many hairy roots.
The three leaflets of poison ivy. Credit: Lorne Field
WebMD has a good slide show of poison ivy, oak and sumac.
People effected by poison ivy, oak and sumac will develop an itchy rash of numerous blisters. In extreme cases people may experience difficulty breathing and a rash spreading over most of the body. Breathing the smoke of burning plants can cause lung irritation and diarrhea.
Treatment: If exposed to urushiol, immediately wash the affected area with warm, soapy water. Antihistamine creams and lotions will relieve itching if a rash develops. Severe rashes or rashes on the face or genitals should be treated by a doctor. Call 911 or go to an emergency room if someone has difficulty breathing, severe swelling or has inhaled the smoke of burning plants.
Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica
It is not technically poisonous but it can be downright irritating. The stalks on stinging varieties of this plant are covered with sharp hairs that inject a cocktail of chemicals that cause a burning, bumpy rash. Stinging nettle does not discriminate. Unlike poison ivy which only affects some people, nettles can ruin everyone’s day. The rash can last up to twelve hours.
Nettles are ubiquitous. They can be found in shady areas, woodlands are especially prominent along the floodplains of creeks and rivers. Look for serrated, dark green heart-shaped, opposite leaves and tiny white hairs on the stems and underside of the leaves. Nettles can be found in large thickets along the trails of the Huguenot Flatwater section of the James River Park System in Richmond.
Stinging nettle leaf and hundreds of stinging hairs. Credit: Lorne Field
Treatment: Clean the affected area with cold, soapy water and apply an antihistamine cream or lotion. Baking soda also does a good job of neutralizing the acetic acid in nettle juice. Native plants such as jewel weed also have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Mistletoe – Phoradendron leucarpum
This delightful holiday decoration can kill your pets. To be fair, there is a lot of debate about whether it is dangerous. It is widely recognized that American Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) can be dangerous to animals and cause illness in people. The European variety (Viscum album) is more toxic but both are generally not life threatening. Pets and children seem to be at the greatest risk for illness. A few berries of either species may be enough to cause a stomach ache. Ingesting a large number of berries can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Deaths in pets have been documented.
Mistletoe is a regular sight in trees across North America. It is a parasitic plant that draws its mineral and water needs from other plants. The genus name, Phoradendron, literally means “tree thief.” There are more than 200 different species but leucarpum is the one most commercially harvested for Christmas kissing in the United States. There are several types native to Virginia. It is easily recognized by its rounded alternate leaves and red, spiky flowers that become clusters of white berries.
American Mistletoe. Credit: David R. Tribble. Wikimedia Commons
Treatment: Animals should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Children and adults should be watched closely and if symptoms worsen call 911.
Spreading Dogbane – Apocynum androsaemifolium
This plant is very common in transition areas like the edges of woodlands, and disturbed areas with full to partial sun. It contains cymarin, a chemical that causes arrhythmia, irritates skin and causes severe nausea. It has been known the kill small animals, livestock and pets – hence the name. The potential for human poisoning is real though no deaths have been reported.
Its milky sap can cause a severe rash in people with sensitive skin and it is especially troublesome as a respiratory irritant. Landscapers and gardeners regularly complain of painful irritation in the nose and throat when breathing in airborne fluids after cutting it. Traditionally it was used to treat headaches, colds, dizziness and insanity. It was also used as a contraceptive. Today it is strongly recommended to just leave it alone because of its powerful effects on the heart.
Spreading Dogbane with flower buds, Chesterfield County. Credit: Lorne Field
It is recognized by its thick red stem, opposite simple leaves and tight bunches of whitish pink flowers. It has earned the nickname Fly Trap Dogbane because flies are attracted by its sweet fragrance but become stuck and die and die of starvation. Larger insects can feed on its nectar without perishing.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately
Pokeberry – Phytolacca americana
This plant narrowly missed being put on the deadly list. It has been known to kill in the past, though deaths appear to be rare today – but still possible. Hospitalizations are common in people who attempt to eat parts of the plant. Children often mistake its fruit for grapes. The stems and leaves are often eaten as a springtime delicacy known as “poke salad”. Traditional preparation calls for repeatedly boiling the shoots and leaves and changing the water each time. This method supposedly removes the poisonous compound phytolaccatoxin. The root is the most poisonous part of the plant, followed by the leaves, stems and fruit. Its toxicity increase as it ages.
It is a very familiar plant. It is recognized by its thick stem that gets red as it ages, large alternate, simple leaves and its cone of whitish pink flowers that become deep purple berries. It can grow quite large. Eight foot plants are not uncommon while others can reach fifteen feet or more. Its red juice was commonly used as a dye and ink by Native Americans and colonists.
Budding Pokeberry, Chesterfield County. Credit: Lorne Field
Symptoms of pokeberry poisoning include: vomiting, convulsions, nausea, weakness, rapid pulse and death in children with untreated cases.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately.
Jimsonweed – Datura stramonium
This plant has perhaps the best documented history of fatal misuse in Virginia. Native Americans used it in sacred ceremonies for its powerful, hallucinogenic effects. Recreational users have died more recently trying to replicate the euphoric visions created by LSD. Like many plants on the deadly list, it is a common killer of livestock that are attracted to its hollow, juicy stem.
Jimsonweed begs to be noticed. Its spiky fruit gives is it the nickname “thorn apple.” Its long pink to purple flower gives it another nickname, “devil’s trumpet.” It is the most easily recognized killer in Virginia. Its violet stalk lifts the saw-tooth leaves, distinctive flower and prickly fruit to a height of four feet or more. The plant is named after Jamestown, where it was famously documented during Bacon’s Rebellion after British soldiers accidentally consumed it. They spent eleven days in an altered state.
Jimsonweed and its distinctive spiky fruit and trumpet shaped flower, Chesterfield. Credit: Lorne Field
All parts of the plant contain toxic tropane alkaloids but the amounts vary plant by plant and even vary within a single specimen. The unpredictable amount of the poison makes dosing a game of Russian Roulette. It is generally acknowledged that the seeds are the most toxic. Just a few can be enough to kill teenagers foolhardy enough to ingest them to get high. Symptoms of poisoning include: hallucination, bizarre behavior, increased heart rate, hyperthermia and death.
I have first-hand, accidental experience with Jimsonweed. I got a little too close to it while trimming grass when I worked for the James River Park System. My trimmer line nicked a Jimsonweed plant near the Pump House and I inhaled some of the mist before I could back away. Electrical pulses coursed through my face hours later and I had visions of fairies dancing on the ceiling. It’s a good thing I didn’t get a seed tossed in my mouth.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately.
Wild Cherry – Prunus serotina
This plant is a conundrum. The internet is full of conflicting information about it. Most sources include the fact that the plant contains high amounts of cyanide yet list it as edible. The cyanide is in the woody parts of the plant: leaves, twigs and seeds. Most sources say that the fruit can be eaten safely if the seeds are removed. Err on the side of caution; if you are not sure don’t eat it!
It is identified by its alternate, elongated leaves and many cylinders of small white flowers which develop into dark red and purple berries in the summer. The berries of wild cherry are attached to their stems with by a fleshy disc.
Black cherry leaves and young fruit. Credit: Lorne Field
Reports of livestock dying after eating the toxic parts of the plant are common yet dear can eat it unharmed. Symptoms of wild cherry poisoning include respiratory distress and dark red venous blood.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately.
Bitter Nightshade – Solanum dulcamara
This plant is both legendary and real. It’s not just found in fairy tales and witches’ cauldrons. It is native to Africa, Europe and Asia but its seeds are quickly spreading across the globe in the bowels of migratory birds. It is widely naturalized in North America and is becoming a common sight in Virginia.
It is recognized by its alternating simple leaves, star-shaped purple flowers that have petals that reach backward and clusters of red and purple berries. Some of the larger leaves will have a pair of lobes near the stem. Nightshade has been spotted on the North Bank Trail in the James River Park System.
The distinctive flower of bitter nightshade. Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia Commons
Nightshade favors shady areas (of course) and grows as a climbing vine or spreading shrub that will overtake other plants. All parts of the plant are poisonous but children are attracted to its berries which is sometimes a fatal mistake. Some people ingest the stem to treat skin ailments and rheumatism but he right dosage is unknown. The symptoms of nightshade poisoning include: headache, dizziness, nausea and stomach bleeding and occasionally death. Some patients develop photosensitivity. The skin of effected people will erupt into a bubbly rash when exposed to light.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately.
These plants get my vote for coolest name. Death Camas is a general term used to identify a group of poisonous plants that resemble members of the wild onion family. There are several types native to Virginia, though they are fairly rare. As you might expect, it is a bad idea to eat anything with the word “death” in its name. The “white,” “pine barren” and “sand bog” varieties have been found in the Commonwealth.
These plants have been known to kill livestock and occasionally people. It is so problematic for farm animals that the USDA website lists “most often just found dead” as the top symptom of animals that have eaten it. Unsuspecting humans who mistake it for wild onion are also vulnerable to its deadly effects. Its most recognizable feature is its beautiful white flower with six petals.
Sand Bog Death Camas in the Blackwater Ecological Preserve. Credit: Old Dominion University
The variety found in central Virginia is the Sang Bog Death Camas. It is occasionally found in sandy, wetland environments from Chesterfield southward and is known to grow in the Cherry Orchard Bog Natural Area Preserve in Prince George and Sussex counties and the Blackwater Ecological Preserve in Isle of Wight. Symptoms of camas poisoning include: involuntary muscle movements, nausea, vomiting and sometimes death in cases that go untreated.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately.
Water Hemlock – Cicuta maculata
The title of Most Poisonous Plant in Virginia goes to this native beauty. Simply put, this plant kills. It is considered to be the most toxic plant in North America and one of the most dangerous known to man. Native Americans simply called it “suicide root”.
Handling it with one’s bare skin can cause severe nausea in adults and death in children. Ingesting just a small amount can kill healthy adults and livestock – hence the nickname “cowbane.” Poisoning occurs in people who mistake it for Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) or parsnip and try to eat its root. Symptoms can occur less than fifteen minutes after ingestion and quickly escalate into a painful inferno of destruction that racks the central nervous system. Symptoms include: nausea, convulsions, hallucinations, swelling of the brain and death. It is recognized by its red, succulent main stem, opposite compound leaves and symmetrically arranged clusters of white blossoms. If you see it, do yourself a favor and just leave it alone.
Water Hemlock leaves, Chesterfield County. Credit: Lorne Field
Water Hemlock in bloom, note the flower head is divided into separate clusters. Credit: www.all-creatures.org
Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot). Note the flower head is full. Credit: Lorne Field
It is found alongside creeks, wetlands, rivers, and ponds throughout North America. It is easy to find along the wetland boardwalk at R. Garland Dodd Park at Point of Rock in Chesterfield. Park signs warn visitors to not disturb or collect plants.
Sign at Point of Rocks Park. Credit: Lorne Field
All parts of the plant contain the dangerous cicutoxin throughout the year and are especially potent in the spring. There have been reports of death and illness in children and would-be survivalists who use its succulent stem as a snorkel or straw. Even if you casually rub against it while swimming or hiking, wash with plenty of soap and water immediately, just to be safe – no joke.
Treatment: Call 911 immediately and start praying. There is no antidote. Medical responders try to make patients comfortable while they slowly recover (possible) or die (likely). People “lucky” enough to survive the 24 to 96 hours of convulsions may suffer permanent neurological damage including: amnesia, weakness, twitching and anxiety.