Most homestead owners agree that one of the pleasures of living on and working the land is simply being outside. But sometimes you end up with serious skin irritation because you touched or brushed up against a plant that you should avoid.
Some plants cause minor irritation and some cause severe blistering. Learning which plants are a potential source of pain on your homestead is an important skill to master.
Once you become familiar with those plants, you can easily spot and get rid of them before they grow large enough to cause you and your family any issues.
1. Poison Ivy
This might be the most common irritating plant and the most recognizable. Poison ivy grows across the United States and odds are you’ve come across it quite often if you spend time in the great outdoors. There are three different species you might see in the US: Toxicodendron radicans, T. rydbergii, and T. orientale.
Poison ivy contains a chemical called urushiol, which is in the entire plant including the leaves, roots, and flowers.
One of the annoying things about poison ivy is that skin irritation can appear days or even a week after you are exposed. This leaves you confused and you may not link the issue back to when you were outside and encountered the plant.
If you come in contact with the plant parts, or even someone or something that has, you will get an aggravating itch, redness and swelling, and sometimes blisters.
Topical or corticosteroid creams may help, or a doctor may prescribe medication if your reaction is severe.
Identifying Poison Ivy:
Poison ivy grows in backyards in the suburbs, on homesteads, on the side of the road, and just about anywhere the land has been disturbed. It grows in a climbing habit or trails along the ground.
Poison ivy loses its leaves in fall, but the plant remains an irritant without leaves, which grow back out in the spring.
They have compound leaves in clusters of three. Remember the adage: leaves of three, let it be. The middle leaf stalk is the longest.
2. Poison Sumac
This is another common plant across the United States and also contains urushiol. Usually found in environments around water like ponds, wetlands, and streams. You can find it anywhere, but especially in heavy clay soil.
It causes skin irritation through contact, though as with all urushiol-containing plants, you must break the leaves, stems, or roots to be exposed. Brushing up against the plant won’t do it.
In some people, poison sumac can be more toxic than poison ivy.
Identifying Poison Sumac:
Poison sumac is sometimes called thunderwood (Toxicodendron vernix) grows like a small tree or shrub.
It’s recognizable by the red stem that comes off the trunk of the plant and has up to 13 smooth green leaves. The flowers are light yellow with a green tinge, and the berries are dull gray.
3. Poison Oak
Rounding off our three plants containing urushiol, you can find poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) in dry areas and forest locations.
Also, keep in mind that some people aren’t affected by urushiol and they won’t realize they’ve been in the stuff until they touch someone who is affected. Then, that person will break out in a rash because the urushiol can travel on skin, clothing, or tools.
That’s why you really need to identify and eliminate the stuff. Don’t burn it, though! Burning urushiol-containing plants releases poisons into the air that can damage your lungs.
Identifying Poison Oak:
Poison oak has hairy, yellow flowers and berries covered in a thin fuzz. It can grow as a large woody vine or a woody shrub. It is a deciduous plant, but be aware. Even the twigs and stems with no leaves will cause severe skin irritation.
The leaves are in a cluster of three and are dark green. They look a little like English oak, though they are not related.
It’s hard to identify all of theToxicodendron plants on this list during the winter because the leaves aren’t present. That’s why you should do your best to examine them and remember where the patches are located on your property when the leaves are present.
4. Wood Nettle
If you wander through moist woodland areas, you are likely to come across wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). It’s common in shaded and moist areas of homesteads. It doesn’t grow in the western part of the US.
Many people eat wood nettle by sautéing them. Just be sure to wear gloves when gathering the plants.
Out of all the stinging plants, I find wood nettle the easiest to deal with. If you wash with soap and water, you can diminish the effects. Remember though, these plants affect people in different ways so the best thing is to avoid them all if you can.
Identifying Wood Nettle:
Wood nettle tends to grow in medium to large patches, making it quite easy to spot. At around four feet tall, stems are covered in stiff hairs that will sting you when you touch or just rub against them.
The leaves are serrated and are dark green or sometimes light green. The young leaves have a lot of hairs and in the summer you will see strands of white flowers.
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides is a common plant many people use in their gardens as a ground cover. It looks quite nice, but don’t touch it.
Also known as plumbago, leadwort is common in the southern United States.
Use gloves when handling this plant because skin irritation is common along with redness and blistering.
The plant grows up to 10 inches tall and is deciduous or semi-evergreen. The green leaves turn red in fall, with gentian flowers blooming in spring and summer.
6. Giant Hogweed
Have you ever looked at an overgrown area and thought you’d just get a start at removing the weeds? There is the possibility giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is in among the plants there. It’s common and considered a noxious weed that is invasive in North America.
There is a sap inside this plant that causes irritation to your skin and serious injury to the eyes that can cause blindness. Seriously: you must keep the sap away from your skin and eyes.
Blistering and scarring is common, with the scar actually looking like burned skin. You may also end up sensitive to sunlight.
Giant hogweed is what is known as a phototoxic plant. It needs ultraviolet light to burn your skin. To be more precise, it stops your skin from being able to protect itself from the sun. If you mistakenly touch this plant, stay out of sunlight until you can wash with soap and water. Even better, stay out of the sun for 48 hours after washing.
Identifying Giant Hogweed:
Giant hogweed grows tall. It’s known to reach 14 feet in height. The stems are hard and hollow, with white hairs. The leaves can be a massive five feet across. It has large clusters of white flowers.
7. Stinging Nettle
Despite being marvelous in nettle tea and lots of recipes, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) can be a pain to have anywhere on your homestead.
Unlike the other plants we’ve looked at, the rash appears almost straight away and can include raised lumps that look like hives.
Some people can even have an allergic reaction and this should be treated as a medical emergency.
For most of us, the best thing to do is let the chemicals causing the pain to dry, so leave the area alone for around 10 minutes. Then, wash with soap and water, but avoid hard scrubbing as you may push the toxins deeper or spread them to other parts of the body.
Identifying Stinging Nettle:
You will often find patches of stinging nettle in damp and moist areas, especially near streams, or in wooded areas with a thick canopy.
The stems and leaves are covered in little hairs. These are hollow and when the plant comes into contact with your skin, chemicals flow through these hairs, causing instant stinging and a rash.
The plants are up to 5 feet tall with opposite leaves. Leaves are pointed with heavily toothed margins.
Ragweeds, which are plants in the Ambrosia genus, contain a lot of pollen and are often blamed for hay fever symptoms. They can also cause skin rashes in people who are allergic to the pollen. Exposure happens when the pollen in the air is inhaled, or the person touched the plant and got pollen on their skin.
The pollen is at the top of the plant in flowers that grow like spikes or streamers. The leaves are mid-green in color. The leaves almost look fern-like and have fine hairs.
9. Gas Plant
Fraxinella (Dictamus albus) is a herb that many people grow, but the sap may cause bad skin irritation in some people when the sap touches their skin and is exposed to sunlight.
Many people love the flowers and the citrus scent, but merely having the plant rub on the skin can cause a nasty rash.
Identifying Gas Plant:
The plant itself grows about 40 inches tall with spikes of purple or white flowers. The leaves look similar to those you find on an ash tree.
10. Wild Parsnip
This tall plant (Pastinaca sativa) with small yellow flowers contains a sap that causes a painful rash when it has contacted the skin and been exposed to sunlight. It takes about 24 hours before you notice the symptoms, but then they come on quite swiftly.
The localized burning can be quite intense and then it forms into a rash which often blisters. Sensitivity to the sun for the affected skin can last for up to two years.
With edible roots, the wild parsnip is a sought-after plant for some people, but the rest of the plant is toxic. Definitely best left to the experienced foragers. The rest of us should avoid it at all costs.
Identify Wild Parsnip:
Wild parsnip can grow six feet tall when in flower, which happens in its second year. It looks similar to Queen Anne’s Lace and has a hollow stem. Leaves are ovate and become smaller near the top of the stem.
How to Protect Your Skin From Irritating Plants
The list of plants that can cause skin irritation just from touching them is long because we’re all different and sensitive to different things. The list above includes the most common plants that cause skin irritation in just about everyone who touches them.
While you should aim to remove these irritants from your property, here are some ways to protect yourself while you’re out and about or removing them:
- Wear clothes that protect your arms and legs. Most of us have garden gloves to protect our hands, but we often forget about our forearms and legs.
- Wear safety glasses when removing common plants that cause skin irritation. Many of them contain sap which can cause irritation or even blindness if it gets in your eyes. Getting the hairs of plants in your eye can also cause severe irritation and pain.
- Wash your gardening clothes. Many of the compounds in these plants will sit on the surface of your clothes, only to have you or someone else touch them and get it on their skin. Consider washing your clothes directly after working near these plants or when removing them, even if you carry on gardening in a fresh set of clothes.
- Have someone else do the job of removing these plants if you are particularly affected by them.