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Look Out for Poisonous Plants

Look Out for Poisonous Plants

AUBURN, Ala. – Spring and summer months are perfect for outdoor activities. When camping or hiking, it is important to know what plants to avoid. Some poisonous plants can cause harm to humans and animals.

Animals and Humans React Differently

Some plants cause reactions or death in humans, but do not have the same effect on animals. Some animals are deathly effected by some plants, but they do not hurt humans.

Andrew Baril, an Alabama Extension regional agent of forestry, wildlife and natural resources, said when it comes to poisonous plants, animals and humans react differently.

“Humans need to look out for poison ivy, poison oak and sumac and don’t touch it,” Baril said. “Animals don’t normally have a problem with the touching these plants, but if your dog rolls in a patch of poison ivy and you rub the dog, it will get on you.”

According to Baril, dog hair can carry the oils found in these plants.

“They can bring them into a home and the oil can get on carpets, rugs, furniture or wherever they lay,” Baril said. “Oils can remain potent for over a year. Therefore, dogs should be bathed after they had been seen playing in the plants.”

Coming in Contact with Poisonous Plants

Unless someone is severely allergic, generally nothing will happen to a person just touching poison ivy, oak or sumac. Problems occur with these plants when someone crushes the leaves or stem and releases the oils.

“If the oil is allowed to come in contact with skin, a rash will develop for most people,” Baril said “If one does come in contact with the oils, it is best to wash the area with warm water and a mild soap. Don’t scratch the area; just lightly remove as much of the oil as possible.”

Baril said that in his opinion, encountering the oils while burning the plants is worse than touching or crushing them.

“Smoke encountering the eyes, and inhalation into one’s lungs is extremely painful, and could lead to hospitalization and even death,” Baril said.

He offers a few tips on how poisonous plants, and precautions to take to avoid them.

  • Poison ivy and poison oak have leaves with three leaflets, often with a reddish spot where the leaflets attach to the stem.
  • Do not burn any part of these plants.
  • Always wear long pants and close-toed shoes when in wooded areas.
  • Consider application of a preventive lotion, such as Ivy Block, before going outdoors.
  • Always wash clothes immediately upon return from walking in wooded areas.

Don’t Eat Wild Plants

Baril cautioned that touching a poisonous plant can be bad, but eating one can be even worse.

“If you don’t know for sure what plant you are handling, don’t ingest the plant,” Baril said.

Dr. Nancy Loewenstein, an Alabama Extension specialist of forestry and wildlife sciences, said there are wild plants that are editable.

“Unless you’re 100 percent sure you’ve identified a plant correctly and made sure it is edible, don’t eat any wild plants,” Loewenstein said. “Some plants have fruits that look safe to eat, but are not. A few examples are Chinaberry and the Chinese tallowtree.


Loewenstein says the fruit of Chinaberry (Melia azederach), is the most toxic part of the tree. The leaves, bark and flowers are mildly toxic but usually cause no problems. Swine and sheep are most commonly affected by eating Chinaberry, but children have been poisoned by eating the berries,” she added.

Chinese Tallowtree

Chinese Tallowtree

“All parts of the Chinese tallowtree (Triadica sebifera) plant are poisonous, especially the fruit,” said Loewenstein.

She added that while she believes not many people would be tempted to eat the seeds, eating berries from this tree can cause diarrhea, listlessness, weakness and dehydration. These symptoms may not occur until two to four days after the plant is eaten.

Alabama Extension’s publication, “Poisonous Plants of the Southeastern United States,” goes into detail about the toxicity of dozens of poisonous plants. It also lists symptoms of exposure and treatment after coming in contact with poisonous plants. You can read the full publication here.

There is also the publication “Touch-Me-Nots – Recognizing and Avoiding Poisonous Plants of Alabama.” You can find this publication here.




Featured Image: Brett Marshall, Sault College, Bugwood.org

Rash Image: zawafoto/shutterstock.com

Chinese Tallowtree Image: KPG_Payless/shutterstock.com

About Emily Eichhorn


  1. Mary J Washnock

    Better check your pics and match them better with article !!!

    • Thank you for catching this! The photo we used originally was mislabeled in our files and used by mistake.

  2. I believe the top picture in this article is Virginia Creeper, which does not contain urushiol like poison ivy or oak. You might consider finding another picture to replace it?

    • Thank you for catching this! The photo we used originally was mislabeled in our files and used by mistake.