10 Rules For Safe Camping With Hazardous Plants
Remember the old joke about the guy who went to the bathroom in the woods and used some shiny green leaves for toilet paper? Turns out the leaves were poison ivy and … you know the rest of the story.
All humor aside, many plants—both wild and cultivated—can cause all kinds of grief. Some will induce illness—or kill—when eaten, others give off toxic smoke when burned. Some irritate skin, and still others can inflict a nasty puncture wound.
Although anyone who ventures out of doors is at some risk of encountering hazardous plants, that risk increases when time is spent in the woods. And when camping—which usually occurs during the warmer months when plants are green and growing—there’s likely to be a run-in with some of Mother Nature’s bad boys.
Dr. Dan Brown studies dangerous plants and their effects on people and animals at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He says campers need to remember that each region of the country has its own hazardous plants.
“If you go from Florida to Michigan or to California, you have a whole different set of actors,” Brown says. “That’s probably one of the reasons that humans tended to associate with animals in prehistoric times. We could have our herds try these plants and work as effective filters for us. We could eat products from the animals, and as we migrated into a new area, we had a food supply until we could figure out which plants were poisonous. It’s probably one of the reasons we were more successful once we domesticated animals.”
The point here is that you can be an expert on the plants in your area, but if you go somewhere else, all your knowledge and experience won’t help you. So even though you may be an experienced camper, going into a new environment means a whole new set of risks.
Why do plants have thorns, stickers, irritating sap or poisonous berries? It’s all in the name of protection.
“Plants have lots of good nutrients in them, so they defend themselves against being eaten or damaged,” Brown says. “Plants can’t run away. If they don’t defend themselves some way, like by growing real tall like a tree or by having thorns, they’ll become extinct in short order. So most plants, including a lot of food plants—in the raw stage, anyway—have lots of defensive chemicals in them.”
Plants’ defense mechanisms can be divided into three types (with some overlap): thorns and other physical means to keep critters away; chemicals that cause skin irritation of some kind; and toxins that cause illness or death if you eat them.
|Many plants can deliver a sharp surprise to unwary campers, including blackberry.|
Things That Say “Keep Away!”
The least malevolent group of plants you’ll run into is those with thorns or stickers. Although most encounters with this group of plants result in nothing more than scratches, there’s still the potential for more serious problems.
“A puncture wound is a puncture wound,” Brown says. “It’s a way for bacteria to get in, or there’s a possibility you can get tetanus. A puncture with a thorn can push bacteria into the body where the body’s not ready for it.”
The most obvious category of plants that can cause puncture wounds is cactuses. Others include blackberries and related species. Then there are grasses with thorny seeds, and a variety of vines and other plants with stickers or thorns.
About the only thing you can do to protect yourself against these plants is to wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as a good pair of walking shoes or light hiking boots. Then be aware of your surroundings, and be careful where you walk. If you do get a puncture would of some kind, get the thorn out, make sure the area is clean, and keep an eye on it. If you notice the area getting red and infected, visit your doctor before an abscess sets in.
The most obvious culprits in this category are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Although those three are the major players, they certainly aren’t the only plants that can cause some kind of skin irritation. Some people develop contact dermatitis from Virginia creeper, a vine that’s common in woodland camping areas all over the eastern US. Other people can develop a rash from touching the white sap of milkweed.
“Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac bother about eighty percent of the population,” Brown says. “What actually happens is that the toxin in poison ivy—an oil called urushiol—binds the protein in the skin, and your body reacts to that combination of protein and oil.”
Many other plants can cause a contact irritation of some kind, including parsnip and celery. An exotic weed, Giant Hogweed, can cause a severe skin rash for people who are sensitive to it.
“Giant Hogweed looks like wild parsnip but it’s enormous,” Brown says. “It’s about 10 feet tall and looks like something out of a dinosaur movie. That stuff really rips you up.”
The danger from these plants goes beyond what happens when you touch them. When you start a campfire, if you happen to grab dried leaves from some of these plants for tinder, or burn vines or branches from them, you can be setting yourself up for some serious problems.
|Poison ivy is the most famous of the many plants that can cause skin irritation. Burning such plants is dangerous as well.|
“Burning these plants can be very dangerous,” Brown says. “The oil can be carried on smoke particles, and smoke particles can be inhaled or can reach different parts of the body. People get really sick that way.” Another, less obvious way to have trouble is to handle someone’s clothing after they’ve been in contact with one of these plants, or pet the dog after he’s rolled in them, or otherwise have secondary contact with the plant oils.
The good news is that for most people, there are ways to prevent problems. When you get out in the woods around your campsite, wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect your skin. Then if you realize you’ve had contact with one of these bad actors, you can solve the problem with soap and water. By washing well within 15 or 20 minutes, most of the time you’ll get the plant oils off before you start to develop a rash.
“Also, women shouldn’t shave their legs before they go out,” Brown says. “When you do, you don’t have that dead skin layer to wash off.”
A couple of common beliefs about poison ivy are untrue. Once you’ve washed the oil off, you can’t spread the rash around on your body.
“It just seems that way because sometimes one part of the body reacts more slowly than other parts, so it seems to spread,” Brown says. “Also, occasionally people get secondary infections, and it’s theoretically possible that you can spread that from one place to another. But the poison ivy rash itself is not contagious.”
No discussion of irritating plants would be complete without a mention of nettle. This little plant can cause an instantaneous and nasty burning sensation when you brush against it.
“Nettles have microscopic cells that shoot tiny needles out,” Brown says. “They inject a histamine that causes a nasty rash. Fortunately, it only lasts about 20 minutes of so. It just feels awful until it wears off.” In extreme cases, taking an antihistamine will help.
Please Don’t Eat The Berries
“Even many food plants need to be detoxified,” Brown says. “We call that detoxification ‘cooking.’ For example, if you eat raw dried beans, you’re going to be extremely sick. So we’ve learned to soak them for a long time and boil them. This gets rid of the chemicals that would give us trouble if we were to eat the dried beans raw.”
By the same token, wild plant toxins run the gamut from those that are neutralized by cooking to those that cause a mild stomach upset to others that will kill you before you get to the emergency room.
“For instance, I would never eat pokeweed or poke salad,” Brown says. “It’s extremely toxic, and requires a great deal of preparation—by the time you get done, there’s not much in the way of nutrients left. But a lot of people in the South historically prepared the young greens and ate them. It’s a heck of a toxic plant—kids have been killed by making juice with the berries.”
|Never eat a wild plant unless you're absolutely positive it's edible. Many plants are toxic, including the pokeweed.|
The best rule of thumb when you’re camping: Don’t eat anything you don’t absolutely know. And even when you think you know something, question your knowledge, especially when you’re in an area with which you’re unfamiliar.
“Don’t be out there wild-crafting,” Brown says. “Don’t pretend you know what an edible plant is if you don’t.” And don’t think that just because a plant looks like an edible plant that it is, especially if you don’t know the botany of a particular area.
“A lot of plants look kind of alike,” Brown says. “Wild carrot, parsnip, poison hemlock and water hemlock are all different, but they look a lot alike. A lot of people have killed themselves thinking they were really cool going out and eating wild carrot or wild parsnip, and they’re eating water hemlock. And there’s nothing you can do for them—they’re dead before you can get them to town.”
The same rules apply to mushrooms. Some mushrooms are incredibly deadly.
“Liver damage from eating wild mushrooms is one of the leading reasons that people need emergency liver transplants,” Brown says. “Some of them cause complete liver failure. A lot of times people get a false recovery—after a few days they don’t feel sick anymore and they think they’re okay. Then their liver completely collapses.”
Heading Off Trouble
With a little planning and preparation before going camping, most of the hazards associated with toxic plants can be avoided. Do a little research—what plants are a serious problem in the area where you’ll be camping? Find out whom to call in that area in the event of a poisoning incident.
Then select the campsite with care. Don’t pitch a tent in the middle of a patch of poison ivy. And watch out for widow-makers—overhead limbs or dead trees that may fall on you. After camp is established, remove any hazardous plants, including mushrooms, to avoid coming in contact with them later.
Always be sure of what you’re burning. A wood fire smells great, but the smoke from toxic plants can be just as dangerous as the plant itself, if touched.
10 Rules For Safe Camping With Hazardous Plants
Here are some basic rules for keeping both you and your children out of trouble with hazardous plants when camping: