Beware This Deadly Trio

Skull and Crossbones

Ah, summertime. A time to picnic in the park and hike through the woods. We want to get out in nature and enjoy the beauty around us. And we especially want to do it safely. A great part of doing it safely involves protecting ourselves from mosquito and tick bites, bee, wasp, and hornet stings, and encounters with noxious plants. It’s this latter topic that I want to deal with here. We’re all familiar with poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. We all know to avoid coming in contact with these. However, there are three plants that are highly noxious and will cause some very serious harm if touched. I’m referring to giant hogweed, wild parsnip, and cow parsnip. All three contain furanocoumarin toxins. These are phototropic toxins which, when exposed to sunlight can cause severe burning that can last for months and leave permanent scars.

Here is some more information about this noxious trio.

Cow Parsnip

Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) – Cow parsnip is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae). It is native to the Pacific Northwest and Midwest. Like carrots, cow parsnip is a biennial – it produces root and leaves the first year, then flowers and seeds the second. The flowers attract a wide variety of insects, and are an important source of pollen and nectar for many of our native bees and other pollinators. In its first year, the young stems and leafstalks can be eaten and were actually used as a food source by indigenous North American tribes. However, in its second year, the stems and leaves produce those phototropic toxins which can do serious damage to your skin. (Source: Anchorage Daily News ( and Illinois Wildflowers (

Wild Parsnip

Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) – Wild parsnip is a fairly common plant (considered by some to be an invasive) that can be found growing in city parking lots, along roadsides and river banks, and near railroad tracks. It has also been found invading prairies, oak savannas, and fens, and has even been found growing in soccer and baseball fields. It can grow 2 to 5 feet-tall and looks similar to Queen Anne’s lace but with yellow instead of white flowers. Like, cow parsnip, it is a biennial and the leaves and stems produce the phototropic, skin destroying toxin. (Source: Chicago Tribune ( and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed (Pastinaca sativa) – Giant hogweed is a biennial or perennial herb in the carrot family (Apiaceae) which can grow 14 feet in height or taller. Its hollow, ridged stems grow 2-4 inches in diameter and have dark reddish-purple blotches. Its large compound leaves can grow up to 5 feet wide. Its white flower heads can grow up to 2 1/2 feet in diameter. Native to the Caucasus Mountain region of Russia, it was introduced into Europe and the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth. In some states such as New York, it is a federally listed noxious weed and it is illegal to possess with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport, introduce or propagate. (Source: Chicago Tribune ( and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (

Should you have the misfortune to come in contact with any of these bad boys, wash the affected area with soap and water and keep it away from sunlight for 48 hours. If you think that you’ve been burned by any of these plants, then run, do not walk, to your doctor or the nearest emergency room or treatment center and have it attended to pronto!


Danger in the Garden

Poison Garden

“You will be interested to learn what charming vegetation grows on the surface of the globe.” — Tiger Tanaka to James Bond in Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice.”

In Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, the evil Dr. Shatterhand is causing headaches to the Japanese government with his “garden of death” — a castle and grounds filled with all manner of poisonous vegetation which the doctor has planted.  His garden has become a mecca for those citizens looking to commit suicide, and Japan’s secret service recruits James Bond to “enter this castle of death and slay the dragon within.”

Such is the stuff of adventure novels, but bears little resemblance to real life.  I say “little,” because most of us lack the time, money, and the insanity to plant a garden filled with strictly noxious plants for nefarious purposes.  However, many of the common ordinary plants that we don’t think of as deadly may contain, in part or all of the plant, toxins that, if consumed, may cause illness or in some cases even death.  Here are a few examples.

Asparagus – Eating the raw shoots when they’re young and green, can cause dermatitis. The berries that grow on the feathery leaves of the mature plant are also toxic. Eating more than a handful can cause nausea and vomiting.

Castor Bean — From the seed we get ricin, a highly toxic substance.  Eight beans is enough to kill an adult human.

Foxglove — Ingestion of the leaves can cause irregular heartbeat and pulse — enough to kill.

Hyacinth, Narcissus, and Daffodil — Eating the bulbs can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea — and even death.

Kidney beans – Kidney beans contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin. A few raw beans will make the consumer violently ill; more than a handful can kill. To inactivate the toxin, beans must be boiled for at least ten minutes before being used raw in salads, cooked with other foods in a slow cooker.

Lima beans – Lima beans should never be eaten raw, as the raw beans contain the toxin limarin. A mere handful of raw lima beans can make someone violently ill.

Potato – The leaves, stems, and tubers that have turned green contain solanine. Solanine can cause gastric distress, headache, delirium, shock, paralysis, and occasionally death.

Rhubarb — The leaves contain oxalic acid.  Eating the leaves can cause convulsions, coma, or death.

Tomato — Leaves contain tomatine, an alkaloid that can cause gastrointestinal upset.  Tomato leaves can be used to make a homemade insecticide.

While most adults are smart enough not to consume stems and leaves from these aforementioned plants, a small child or pet may not know better.  And one mistake could be the last.  So let’s be safe in the garden and keep pets and children away from these and other potentially deadly plants.