Practical Tips for Identifying Poisonous Plants


Whether you’re going on a day hike or heading out for an extended trip, it is important that you be able to identify common dangers when you’re on the trail. Poisonous plants are everywhere and they don’t always look like they are dangerous. Keep reading to learn some practical tips for identifying poisonous plants on your next hike.

General Tips for Identifying Dangerous Plants

A good rule of thumb to follow out on the trail is that if you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it. The most common poisonous plants you’re likely to encounter are poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. Poison ivy grows on vines (as the name would suggest), while both poison sumac and poison oak grow in the form of shrubs. You may have heard the rule, “leaves of three, let it be,” but that might not be enough. Many non-poisonous plants grow with leaf groupings of three and many poisonous plants do not. Your best bet is to learn how to individually identify the most common poisonous plants.

Identifying the Most Common Poisonous Plants

The most important thing you can do to stay safe out on the trail is to come prepared. In addition to having the right equipment and supplies, you need to know how to keep yourself safe in the environment and that means identifying poisonous plants. Here are some of the most common:

  • Poison Ivy – This plant has a woody, thorn-free stem with clusters of 3 leaves where there are 2 opposing leaflets and 1 large terminal leaf. Each group of leaves grows on a stem attached to the main fine and yellow-green flowers appear in the late spring and early summer.
  • Poison Oak – This plant grows as a shrub up to 3 feet tall with compound leaves having 3 leaflets. The leaflets have rounded edges similar to an oak tree leaf and the leaves are bright on the top side and hairy underneath.
  • Poison Sumac – This is a small tree or large shrub that grows up to 25 feet tall, often near water and in wet soil. Poison sumac produces compound leaves that are pinnate, with an odd number of leaves between 7 and 13.
  • Stinging Nettles – Found largely in moist and shady areas, stinging nettles are perennial unbranched shrubs that produce needle-covered leaves and yellow or pink flowers.
  • Poison Hemlock – This plant is particularly dangerous because it is difficult to tell apart from the non-toxic Queen Anne’s lace. The difference is that Queen Anne’s lace has a flat-topped umbrella shape with the tiny flowers grouped close together while hemlock has a rounded umbrella shape with flowers more loosely distributed.
  • Foxglove – These bell-shaped flowers are beautiful but deadly if consumed. They grow wild in many gardens but are highly toxic to animals and children.

When you’re out in the wilderness, you can never be too careful. You may think you know what to look for when it comes to dangerous plants, but review the tips above to make sure – it’s better to be safe than to be sorry!

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