As those of us who have suffered through a bout of poison ivy can attest, coming into contact with a poisonous plant — let alone ingesting it — can be an extremely unpleasant experience. Poisoning from plants can result in anything from minor irritation to death.
An important part of your trip planning and preparation is to learn which plants you’ll encounter when you’re in the wild, especially since many edible plants have poisonous look-alikes. Also, don’t believe the following misconceptions about poisonous plants:
Misconception: “Eat what the animals eat.”
Fact: Not true. Animals can eat plants that are poisonous to the rest of us.
Misconception: “If I boil the plant, the toxins will be removed.”
Fact: In some cases, boiling doesn’t remove all toxins.
Misconception: “Red, you’re dead.”
Fact: Some red plants are poisonous, but not all.
Misconception: “White, just right.”
Fact: Many white plants and berries are poisonous.
If you don’t know what a plant is, don’t touch it or eat it. Eating the wrong plant can kill you. Nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, depressed heartbeat and respiration, headaches and hallucinations are all symptoms of poisoning.
If you suspect you’ve eaten a poisonous plant, immediately induce vomiting. This will bring up some of the toxic matter, but not all. After vomiting, if you have an ample supply of water, drink as much as possible to dilute the poison.
When you have no knowledge of a plant, suspect it’s edible, and have no other choice but starvation, then you need to do an edibility test before you ingest a quantity of it. However, never eat mushrooms! Identifying mushrooms is a very exact science, and if you eat the wrong one, it can kill you quickly. Mushrooms offer little nutrition in return for the chances you are taking.
My friend in survival, Dave Arama, has this to add: “In a survival situation, and on an empty stomach, even a mildly toxic plant can kill you. With a full stomach as in our everyday lives, ingesting a mildly toxic plant will probably result in a stomach ache or in the worst-case scenario, a quick visit to the hospital.
If you suspect that your skin has come into contact with a poisonous plant, our first course of action should be to try to remove the oil by washing the area with soap and cold water. If there is no water nearby, use dirt or sand to wipe your skin — but not if blisters have already appeared there.
The toxin and the infection can be spread by touching the infected area and then touching another part of your body, so resist the urge to scratch! Bandage the infected area to prevent any other part of your body from coming in contact with the infection.
Aside from the dangers of touching and eating unknown plants, there is another little-known way that plants can be harmful: if you burn them. People have experienced life-threatening health issues from burning piles of poison ivy and inadvertently breathing the smoke.
Plants can prove hazardous through more than just their poisons, too. Many are covered in spikes, spines, barbs or thorns that can cause excruciating pain that, if left unattended, can result in festering wounds. One unfortunate hiker who was walking carelessly through the desert tripped and held out his hand to break his fall. He landed on a saguaro cactus, and a 4-inch (10-cm) spine went right through his palm and out the other side.
Some plants can be hazardous because of the insects they host. Certain plants and insects help each other out. For example, there is a bush in the Amazon jungle that is home to a very protective type of ant. Get too close to the bush and the ants will actually jump out and attack you. Grab the bush and all bets are off. For this reason, wear gloves when possible and tuck your pants into your socks whenever you travel in creepy-crawly country, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Don’t overlook the importance of footwear as protective clothing. One time in Arizona, I stopped in the middle of a hike because of excruciating pain in the top of one foot. It turned out to be a teddy-bear cactus making its way through my leather boots. The only scorpion sting I ever got was while wearing sandals in the desert. The scorpion also stung me on my index finger as I pulled it off my foot, and the numbness lingered for nearly two years.
This story is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show “Survivorman” on the Discovery Channel.