‘Tis the season for itchiness!
Spring and summer is upon us (or for those in the Northern Hemisphere) and outdoor venturing beckons. People are buying camping gear, boots, backpacks and other necessities for hiking or backpacking. But humans aren’t the only ones preparing for the seasons. So are certain plants, especially contagious varieties.
Here’s a list of plants and leaves you should pay attention to when you’re on the trails:
These plants are common plants growing along the edge of hiking trails and bushes. It doesn’t require much contact with a leaf to catch skin irritation. A mere brush, or contact with a piece of apparel and body part that touched a leaf or stem, is enough to cause a breakout. These plants appear oily when the weather is warm so beware of any leaves that shine bright. Toxicodendron radicans usually grows as bunches within shrubs or vines that scale various surfaces, blending very well with other regular plants. In summer months they grow yellow-green flowers in clusters near attached white berries.
Toxicodendron diversilobum and toxicodendron pubescen resemble oak leaves, growing in the western and eastern portions of the United States where oak trees flourish or dry soil persists (Southwest). The plants are able to scale oak trunks. Leaves feature lobed, smooth edges; yellow-green flowers sprout in the summertime around clusters of white and grey berries. Hmmmm….sounds all very similar to poison ivy.
Prevalent along the east coast and southeast, the toxicodendron vernix leaf contains a higher concentration of Urushiol. This means that the symptoms of itchiness and skin breakouts are much worse. Unlike poison oak and poison ivy, these leaves don’t appear as cloves (“leaves of three, let them be”). The sumac leaf grows on the sumac tree, with each branch having 7-13 leaflets. Each leaf grows 2 to 4 inches and have a smooth edge with pointed tip. One way to recognize a sumac leaf is to look for the presence of a yellow-green flowers growing around grey/white berries. The plant grows in wet soils of the east and southeast of the United States.
This tree only grows in Florida. The reddish-brown bark exudes a black sap that contains Urushiol. When the tree is a shrub, the bark is a lighter color. The trunk is short and it’s surrounded by drooping branches. Unlike other poisonous plants, you won’t catch a skin irritation if you have contact with its leaves.
Avoid these particular itchy plants because they’ll cause mild skin irritation and blisters. Unlike poison ivy and poison oak, you can cook the smaller leaves (less than six inches) to remove the poisonous effects and consume them for their nutrition benefits. The plants grow as an unbranched shrub, up to 4 feet tall with needle-covered leaves in the southeastern states of the U.S. In summer months, they grow a tall yellow-green flower (just like poison ivy and poison oak).
Stinging Tree (Dendrocnide moroides, aka “stinging brush, gympie stinger, mulberry-leaved stinger, gympie gympie, gympie, stinger, the suicide plant, or moonlighter”)Probably the most lethal botanical in the world. The needle hairs that grow on its leaves deliver a poisonous neurotoxin that delivers extreme pain and death.
Botanist and ecologist Ernie Rider described his experience with the plant when he was stung by it:
For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower. … There’s nothing to rival it; it’s ten times worse than anything else.
The fruit is edible if the needles are removed, supposedly. Treatment involves diluted hydrochloric acid and hair removal strips. This plant grows in Indonesia and Australia.
Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac/Wood Treatments
How do you treat exposure to these plants? With the exception of the stinging tree, the response varies.
If you’re feeling itchy in a small area, a cream should suffice. Zanfel and Ivarest are common treatment creams that you can buy over-the-counter at most pharmacies. You can visit your doctor and ask them to describe stronger creams if these don’t suffice.
Some people employ natural remedies for treatment. These include:
- Baking soda
- Apple cider vinegar
- Aloe Vera gel
- Banana peel
- Cucumber paste
- Goldenseal root and warm water
- Watermelon rind
Extreme circumstances require tougher responses. For exposure around the eyes or other vital organs, doctors might give you a cortisone or triamcinolone shot to relieve inflammation, and then prescribe cortisteroids to alleviate remaining symptoms. Hydrocortisone ointments are useless in this situation, as are natural treatments listed above.