Itchy Plants 101

Toxic plants similar to poison ivy are surprisingly easy to brush up against when you’re out walking through the woods. Especially if you are not careful, the toxic oils found on the leaves of this and related plants can easily spread across your body and cause a painful burn and rash. Unfortunately, poison ivy isn’t the only nasty plant you need to avoid, either – poison oak, stinging nettles, and giant hogweed are all abundant in wooded areas and can quickly ruin your trip upon contact with them.

The best way to prevent these plants from ruining your excursion with a nasty rash is to avoid contact with them entirely. But to avoid them, you first need to know how to recognize them when you’re out and about. This article will cover the basics of how to recognize poison ivy, poison oak, stinging nettles, and giant hogweed in the wild so that you can take extra care to avoid them. Plus, in case of accidental contact, we’ll also cover what you can do in order to minimize the harmful effects.


Identifying Common Toxic Plants

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is an extremely common toxic plant and is probably best known for the saying “leaves of three let it be.” As the saying indicates, poison ivy almost always has leaves in clusters of three at the end of each stem. Typically, the center leave is slightly larger than the two on either side. Unfortunately, some of the other easily identifiable characteristics of leaves can’t be used to pinpoint poison ivy since the leaves can be either rounded or notched along the edges and can appear anywhere from red to green to orange in color depending on the season. although the leaves can be either rounded or notched along the edges. The defining characteristic of the leaves beyond their clusters of three are that their tips will be pointy. During the winter and spring, dormant poison ivy also grows berries that can help with identification. The berries are typically white in color and translucent.

The poison ivy plant itself is not always a vine, as you might expect from the name, but can also be a standalone bush. However, in rocky areas or around materials that are easily climbable, like a fence, poison ivy can grow upward and densely to form a barrier of toxic leaves.

Poison Oak

Poison oak is related to poison ivy and carries the same toxic resin, urushiol. Like poison ivy, poison oak leaves come in clusters of three on the ends of each stem, although this is not a hard and fast rule – some poison oak varieties can have clusters of five or seven leaves. There are some other important differences in comparing poison ivy versus poison oak, too. Poison oak leaves are not pointed, but rather are rounded and lobed similar to oak tree leaves. The leaf colors range from bright green in spring to yellow-green or pink in summer to yellow or brown in the fall. Like poison ivy, poison oak puts out berries in the winter and spring. However, poison oak berries are hairy whereas poison ivy berries are smooth. Poison oak also typically grows as a ground shrub, although some varieties can form limited vines.

Stinging Nettles

Stinging nettles live up to their name – this plant is covered in needle-like hairs that will leave you feeling as if the plant bit you if you come into contact with it. Stinging nettle bears little resemblance to poison ivy and poison oak. This plant typically grows as a stalk and may be found either as an individual isolated plant or in a crowd of stinging nettle stalks. The stalks can be anywhere from 1.5 to nine feet high and either green or purple in color. Upon closer inspection, you should have no trouble seeing the needle-like hairs covering the stalk, although a few varieties of stinging nettles have smooth stalks as well. The plant may also have green or greenish-yellow flowers clustered around the stem.

To confirm your classification, look at the leaves. Stinging nettle leaves are typically oval-shaped with pointy tips and sharply serrated edges. The leaves themselves will be covered on both sides with stinging hairs.

Giant Hogweed

Giant hogweed is an extremely dangerous toxic plant whose sap can cause severe blistering on your skin and even blindness if it gets into your eyes. This plant grows up to 14 feet tall and is typically found around creeks and rivers since it requires an abundant freshwater source to grow. The first sign that you may be encountering giant hogweed is clusters of white flowers arranged in large umbrella patterns up to two feet in diameter. The leaves of this plant are green in color and extremely large and lobed, while the stem is thick and green with prominent splotches of purple. Also look for needle-like white hairs at various points on the stem – these are one of the better ways to distinguish giant hogweed from harmless cow parsnip. On giant hogweed, the white hairs will encircle the stem entirely at specific height intervals, while on cow parsnip the white hairs will be more randomly distributed all over the stem.


What to Do in Case of Contact

If you do happen to come into contact with a toxic plant, acting quickly and smartly can help reduce the pain and skin damage you’re likely to suffer. The goal is to reduce the time that the toxin is on your skin, worsening the burn and your body’s inflammation responses, as well as to prevent it from seeping beneath the surficial layer of your skin.

The most important thing you can do immediately after recognizing that you have contacted a toxic plant is to wash the affected area with soap and water. The water can help to dilute the toxic resin from your skin, while the soap works to pick up oil that water alone won’t carry away. If at all possible, use cold water rather than warm water – cold water will cause your skin to close its pores, thus making it more difficult for the toxin to reach the capillaries under the surface of your skin. If you have ice or a cold compress, use this to cool the area of the burn since that will further encourage your skin to close pores as well as mitigate the painful burning sensation and reduce swelling and inflammation.

In addition, rubbing gently so as not to further damage your skin can be very effective in clearing away the toxic residue. Alcohol prep pads can be very useful for this, since these will not only clean the skin as a rash begins to develop but also work similarly to soap for clearing away toxic oil residue.

You also want to make sure that you are not spreading the toxic oils anywhere else on your body. For this reason, it is much better to rinse the affected area specifically rather than try to shower your whole body. In addition, if your skin came into contact with a toxic plant, chances are high that your clothes did as well – resin on your clothes can actually cause a fresh burn days after initial contact with the plant in the case of poison ivy.


The Verdict

Itchy and toxic plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, stinging nettles, and giant hogweed are not only uncomfortable – they can be outright dangerous for the painful skin reactions they cause. The best way to prevent having to suffer through a burn from one of these plants is to avoid them entirely. But that doesn’t have to mean staying out of the woods. Instead, learn how to identify these plants so that you can make informed choices about where you are walking and prepare yourself to apply first aid to affected skin to minimize the consequences of contacting these plants.