Surviving in the wilderness for any length of time requires knowledge of the dangers and advantages presented by the plants around you. Being able to identify dangerous plants in the wild will keep you comfortable, healthy, and in some cases alive. There are also many wild plants that can help you out in an emergency.
You might be surprised to learn that the active ingredients found in the most common and potent medicines are either extractions from or synthetic replications of compounds first found in trees, herbs, and other plants. Many compounds given out therapeutically are toxic or fatal in large enough doses, and many tribes worldwide have traditionally used – and continue to use – toxins derived from different plants as both poisons to help kill their quarry and as neuroenhancers to sharpen their hunting skills.
Sadly, we don’t have that knowledge, and can’t offer you a guide on how to poison your arrow tips or fortify your archery skills. What we can do is provide you with a guide to the most common deadly and otherwise unpleasant plants to be found in the North American wilderness. In addition, we’ve got some interesting tips and tricks on some of the weird shit that nature does in plants, and how you can use this to your advantage.
Caveat: you won’t find anything about poisonous mushrooms in this article, because mushrooms aren’t plants.
Bad: Stinging Nettles
Stinging nettles are common throughout Europe and were introduced to the US long enough ago that they’ve become widespread in every state except Hawaii. They’re especially prevalent in the Pacific Northwest high rainfall areas.
Nettle plants are from ankle to waist high, and can be identified by mid-to-dark green leaves (dull rather than shiny) arranged oppositely around the stem. The plants are often wider at the bottom than the top, like a Christmas tree. The leaves of nettle contain tiny hairs that will stick in your skin if you brush against the plant, acting as hypodermic needles and injecting histamine into you.
Nettle stings aren’t dangerous but can be quite painful and itchy. Curiously, if you’re out in the woods and are stung by a nettle, there’s a very good chance that the cure is within arms’ reach too.
Good: Burdock Leaves
Known as dock in the UK, the leaves of this small plant look a bit like chard or silverbeet, except that their stalks tend to be a bit shorter. Dock plants are very often found within sight of nettle plants [as in main picture above]. Not by any deliberate planting, either: it’s just a quirk of nature that they seem to prefer the exact same niche. Lucky for you, next time you get stung. If you can’t find any dock leaves, look around for some greater plantain.
Bad: Poisonous Ivy
Poisonous Ivy is found throughout the United States and Canada. It may be a bush or a climbing vine, and has shiny bright green leaves arranged in threes (although some species of poison ivy change color to yellows, oranges and reds during the fall). The toxins in poison ivy work rather differently to most chemical deterrents you’ll encounter in plants, and can the effects of exposure can be prolonged, complicated, and dangerous.
The poison in poison ivy works by locking onto skin cells it comes into contact with. Rather than hurting the skin cells it attaches to, it sends misinformation to your immune system, causing your body to attack the exposed areas of skin. This leads to itchiness, sores, and bleeding. After initial exposure, the effect can even turn up on non-exposed parts of your skin.
Best poison ivy treatment
Prevention is the best cure. You should be able to readily identify poison ivy and avoid touching it. If you do touch it, a quick response is paramount. If you’re going somewhere that may present a risk of poison ivy, try to carry soap and water with you to wash any contacted skin immediately. Whatever you do, don’t use a soap that contains oils. The poison is oil-based, so oily soaps or creams will only spread it further and make it worse.
A traditional remedy for poison ivy is the jewelweed plant. This plant contains high amounts of saponins, a natural soap formula, which helps to wash the poisonous oil out of your skin. The stem is the best source of saponins: crush it up in your hands and rub it on the affected areas (while washing with water if you have any).
Bad: Jumping ants
In case you’re ever surviving in the wilderness (or just having a picnic) in South-Eastern Australia, you might want to know about the Jack Jumper or Jumping Jack Ants. It’s a gross generalization to say that everything in Australia wants you dead, but between 1980 and 2000 this species of ant actually killed four people in Tasmania.
The ants are known for their ability to jump long distances, and they attack with their mandibles and sting. You can recognize the species before they bite by watching them: they tend to cover a square yard or so of ground around their nest and seem to be racing around in what looks like stop-motion. The sting of the ant is comparable to bee sting: about as painful, and capable of producing anaphylactic shock, which is how those four people dies in Tasmania. If you suspect that you or someone else might be having an anaphylactic reaction, seek out an EpiPen pronto. If the reaction is not anaphylactic but is quite severe, you can take antihistamines for a day or three.
Good: Bracken Fern and Pigface Flowers
Fortunately, most people don’t have a severe response to jumping jack bites, and aside from the pain, you’ll be ok. To treat the pain in the meantime, nature provides. In the same ecological niches that you find these horrible ants, you’ll also find bracken fern and pigface, both of which can be rubbed directly on the affected area to ease itching, swelling and burning sensations. These treatments were discovered and shared by indigenous Australians, whose knowledge on such matters is a vastly disrespected and underappreciate resource.