"Health Matters:" Poisonous plants: Know what to look for

The Bennington area is home to a bevy of poisonous plants that you need to watch out for during this season when we spend more time outdoors than in. In this area, cow parsnip, giant hogweed, poison oak, poison sumac, poison ivy, stinging nettle, and wild parsnip all grow rampant. If you do not know what to look for, you could end up with a serious rash or lung irritation, and nobody wants to spend their hiking trip itching and wheezing or in the emergency room.

If you are enjoying the summer weather outside, there are a number of things to look out for to help you avoid poisonous plants. Here are some tips on what several poisonous plants look like and where they are likely to grow:

Poison ivy appears as a hairy, ropelike vine, with three leaves, green or red in color (red in the fall). Western ivy may also present itself as a shrub with yellow or green flowers and white, green, yellow, or amber berries. It grows at the edges of roads and fields and its oil causes skin irritation, itchiness, and a blistering rash if plant is touched or the particles are inhaled.

Cow parsnip appears as a three to 10 foot tall plant. Its leaves are 12 to 18 inches in size, and are rough and bristly. Its leaves have three segments, and it has sweet-smelling white or cream colored flowers that bloom in midsummer. Cow parsnip tends to grow in forests and along the edges of rivers, streams, and roads. Its effects are varied, from mild skin irritation to severe blistering.

Giant hogweed is a very large plant with small white flowers that form a kind of large, flat-topped canopy about two and a half feet across. Its stems have purple blotches and coarse bristles. The plant grows in open fields, woods, tree lines, and along the side of roads, streams, and rivers. Giant hogweed can cause severe skin irritation. Some people experience burning blisters that leave scars.

Poison oak grows as vines or as an erect plant. It has three-parted leaves, small yellow flowers, and white, rounded fruit. Its appearance is very similar to poison ivy. It grows as groundcover or in mowed areas. Its oil causes skin inflammation and a blistering, painful rash.

Poison sumac is a woody shrub that can grow to a height of 20 feet. Its leaflet stems exhibit red, yellow, or green flowers in June and July and small white or grey berries in September (non-poisonous sumac has red berries). Poison sumac grows mainly in very flooded soil, such as in swamps or peat bogs. The plant causes irritation of the skin and mucous membranes. If inhaled, it can cause digestive and other internal issues.

Stinging nettle is an herb with stinging bristles, heart-shaped leaves, and small green flowers. It grows in forests, at the edges of woods and roads, and at waste facilities. Stinging nettle causes severe burning and itching for about 30 minutes.

Wild parsnip is a plant about two-and-a-half feet tall. It has branched leaves with saw-tooth edges, small, five petalled yellow flowers that create a flat-topped canopy two to six inches across.

You'll also notice round, straw colored seed pods and long, cone-shaped taproots. Wild parsnip grows along roadsides and in pastures and fields. It causes a rash in some people who are sensitive to the plant. This occurs most often when the plant is flowering.

So, next time you're hiking, gardening, or swinging in the hammock, take a look around you. By keeping these characteristics in mind, you can avoid the consequences of coming in contact with the poisonous plants that are native to our region.

Dr. Janel Kittredge is an emergency room physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Physician services at SVMC are provided by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians. "Health Matters" is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.


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