Wildcrafting Basics: Toxic Plants

Within these beautiful false hellebore leaves lies a deadly toxin. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Within these beautiful false hellebore leaves lies a deadly toxin. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Wildcrafting is the craft of harvesting medicinal plants from the wild. Humans have been wildcrafting since the dawn of time, but today when medicines are so easily procured, one might question the effort and time required to gather your own. I can assure you that the benefits of harvesting and making medicine from wild plants are many. It is not only more sustainable to use the medicinal plants that grow in the regions where we live, but the herbs we gather will be fresher and more potent. Also, because they are born of the same forces that give shape to our own physical and spiritual beings, local plants are more likely to offer deep healing benefits for our bodies, minds, and souls. In this series of posts covering Wildcrafting Basics (excerpted from my book Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants), I will share with you the many elements wildcrafters ought to consider in order to safely and sustainably practice this age-old craft.

Toxic Plants
Learning to correctly identify toxic plants can save you and others from serious harm. I don’t want to instill fear of the wild in you, but there are some toxic plants in this region that can be confused with commonly used medicinal plants. Here is an overview of the toxic plants you may encounter in the Pacific Northwest. Please do your own research. Find a book that deals specifically with poisonous plants and study it well. Pay close attention to the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) and the parsley (Apiaceae) families. They contain some of this region’s most beneficial and most poisonous plants.

The irritating oil urushiol, present in all parts of the poison oak plant, can cause severe rashes in some people.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The irritating oil urushiol, present in all parts of the poison oak plant, can cause severe rashes in some people.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

First, let’s define toxic. Plants considered toxic or poisonous have one or more parts that cause a harmful reaction when people consume, inhale, or come into contact with them. There are degrees of toxicity to consider as well. We’ve all probably consumed foods that when eaten in moderation give us no trouble, but when consumed in larger quantities the same food may make us sick to our stomachs, such as foods high in fats or sugars.

If one part of a plant is edible, that doesn’t mean that all parts of it are edible. Conversely if one part of a plant is toxic, that doesn’t mean that all parts of it are toxic as well. The leaves, bark, roots, and seeds of blue elder, for example, contain the toxic compound hydrocyanic acid that can cause nausea and/or vomiting if ingested, but the berries (minus the seeds) and flowers when ingested cause no adverse reaction.

Baneberry’s enticing but toxic berries live up to their name, but the roots and leaves are safe to consume. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Baneberry’s enticing but toxic berries live up to their name, but the roots and leaves are safe to consume. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

There is also a common misconception that if birds or other animals can safely consume a plant, it must be edible for humans to eat as well. This not true. The digestive systems of other animals differ from those of humans and correspondences do not apply. This goes the other way as well. If an animal consumes a plant and it causes a toxic reaction, it doesn’t mean that the same plant will cause an adverse reaction in humans.

Unfortunately, much of the information we rely on for determining which plants are toxic to humans comes from animal studies or cases of livestock poisoning. For example, despite the fact that Saint John’s wort has a reputation for causing photosensitive reactions in humans, there have been few documented cases of such reactions occurring. In Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada, the most referenced book when it comes to toxicity, John M. Kingsbury cites a 1920s study showing that in order for sheep to exhibit symptoms of Saint John’s wort photosensitization, they need to eat 5 percent of their body weight of dry Saint John’s wort herb. For cattle it is 1 percent. If we take the average human body weight at 150 pounds and assume that our digestive systems are similar, this would mean that a human would have to eat 1 1/2 pounds of dry Saint John’s wort to have a reaction. We know that our systems are quite different, but it would be hard for a human to even come close to this amount. In moderate doses the vast majority of people are fine consuming medicinal preparations of Saint John’s wort.

What to Do If Someone Consumes a Toxic Plant

  1. Stay calm.
  2. If the person has stopped breathing or doesn’t respond to being touched or shaken, call 911 immediately. Otherwise, call the local poison control center. In the United States, dialing 1-800-222-1222 will connect you with the nearest poison control center. In British Columbia, the local poison control center can be reached at 1-800-567-8911. As best as you can, describe the plant responsible for the poisoning, the symptoms of the poisoning, and the amount of plant material the person ingested.
  3. Wait for professional help, and do not administer syrup of ipecac or attempt to force the person to vomit by any other means. Inducing the poisoning victim to vomit can make the problem worse.
  4. If you are in the field and far from medical attention, administer activated charcoal. The recommended dosage for adults is 25–100 grams of powder mixed with water. For children 1–12 years old, it is 25–50 grams mixed with water. For children less than 1 year old, give 10–25 grams mixed with water. Then seek emergency medical help as quickly as possible.

Human-Created Toxicity
Always look for evidence of environmental contamination before harvesting, and keep in mind that certain areas such as farms and roadsides are often polluted. Don’t harvest plants growing downwind, downstream, or near conventional farmland where herbicides, pesticides, and/or chemical fertilizers are used. Plants that readily uptake minerals, such as nettle, are especially susceptible to contamination by chemical fertilizers. Because they may absorb car exhaust, uptake gas or oil runoff, or be sprayed with herbicides, don’t harvest plants growing near well-travelled roads. Plants that have been sprayed with herbicides will look unnaturally wilted and may exhibit strange patterns of growth.

Electromagnetic radiation may alter the energetic essence of the plant and negatively affect the quality of your medicine. Don’t harvest plants growing under power lines.

Take Care with the Parsley Family (Apiaceae)
Several toxic plants in this family grow in the Pacific Northwest and may be confused with common medicinal plants. Two of these plants, water hemlock and poison hemlock, can actually kill you. When harvesting, it is important to distinguish wild carrot (Daucus carota) from poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and angelica (Angelica species) from water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii).

Wild carrot and poison hemlock both grow in dry, disturbed soils. Wild carrot’s hairy stems are usually not purple-spotted, and its white, carrot-like roots are pleasant smelling. Wild carrot’s nest-like seed head, made up of bristly haired seeds, is another good indicator. Poison hemlock’s usually purple-spotted stems are hairless, and the roots usually exude a disagreeable aroma. The seed heads, made up of hairless seeds, remain open as the seeds mature.

The lacy foliage and white, small-flowered umbels of purple-stalked poison hemlock look similar to other members of the parsley family.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The lacy foliage and white, small-flowered umbels of purple-stalked poison hemlock look similar to other members of the parsley family.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Poison hemlock Conium maculatum. Courtesy of Robyn Klein. Used with permission.

Poison hemlock Conium maculatum. Courtesy of Robyn Klein. Used with permission.

The angelicas and water hemlocks both prefer wet soils and have compound leaves with large leaflets. Angelica roots have a very specific, perfumey, soap-like smell and a usually unchambered, solid root. The leaf veins usually terminate at the tips of the teeth. In contrast, water hemlock usually has chambered roots, and its leaf veins usually terminate at the cut between the teeth.

Water hemlock Cicuta douglasii. Courtesy of Robyn Klein. Used with permission.

Water hemlock Cicuta douglasii. Courtesy of Robyn Klein. Used with permission.

You may have noticed that I used the word usually several times in the previous two paragraphs. Because the form of individual plants of the same species can sometimes differ greatly, do not use any of these characteristics alone to make a positive identification. The most reliable way to positively identify plants in the parsley family is by seed. Identify the plants while in seed using a botanical key, and get to know the differences intimately. Your life or the lives of others depend on your ability to correctly identify these plants.

Toxic Plant Quiz
To prepare my students for wildcrafting, I hand out a toxic plant quiz that we go over together in class. Here, I’ve included what I consider the most important part of that quiz. These are seven of the most deadly toxic plants of this region. Know how to identify these plants because they can actually kill you if you ingest them.

List the Latin name, defining characteristics, look-a-likes, toxic part(s), and symptoms of poisoning for the following plants:

1. water hemlock

2. poison hemlock

3. monkshood

4. false hellebore

5. foxglove

6. death camas

7. wild cucumber