Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is a glorious outdoor experience. Beauty resides everywhere you look.  With a plethora of species, it is a plant enthusiast’s heaven.  However, some plants although beautiful, can also be dangerous.  Some of the most common poisonous plants that you can come in contact with in the Smokies even exist in your own yard.  Read on to learn how to recognize them and what to do if you have come in contact with them.

Poison Ivy

Perhaps the most common poisonous plant in North America.  Poison Ivy has adapted into three different forms.  The trailing vine located can be found on the ground. The shrub ranges from ground level to 4 feet in height.  The climbing, “hairy” vine depends on a tree to thrive.  Hard to recognize by it’s common three leafed structure, poison ivy produces something called the urushiol liquid.  The liquid is found in the sap and upon contact causes skin irritation such as itching, redness and inflammation. Though you should try to avoid the plant altogether, if you experience direct contact, an immediate wash with antibacterial soap and hot water will limit your chances of the rash.

Stinging Nettles

Is commonly referred to as Nettles. It is widely found in its native regions including Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Yet, its poisonous qualities are quite unique.  Nettles has an innocently soft and hairy exterior, but don’t be fooled.  Upon contact, these hairs will leave you quite uncomfortable.  The compounds – formic acid, serotonin and histamine found in the hairs will result in a stinging sensation in whichever area of the body that has been touched.  The itching and burning pain will not last more than a couple of hours but make no mistake, it won’t be pleasant.

While stinging nettles are unpleasant to touch, nettle is often touted as a superfood.  People often carefully harvest nettle to dry for tea.  Nettle can also be cooked.  The hairy needles fall off during the cooking process.

Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel

One of the most beautiful flowering plants in the Smokies is also one of the most toxic.  These woody shrubs contain a dangerous cardiac toxin.  Each and every part, from the stem to the flowers, is toxic to humans.  In fact, the first form of chemical warfare ever recorded used rhododendron.  Greek soldiers were killed by ingesting rhododendron honey in 4 B.C.

These plants are identified by their long, waxy, green leaves.  When the leaves drop, they turn brown and curl up  like a cigar.  Mountain laurel, a cousin of rhododendron, is also extremely toxic.

Interestingly, while it is toxic to ingest the plant or it’s parts, rhododendron wood is quite useful.  Cherokee and early white settlers often made their eating utensils from the beautifully curved wood.  The wood, when burned, does emit a very strong toxin that can burn your throat and lungs.

Pokeweed

Also referred to as poke salad or pokeberry, pokeweed is an extremely toxic plant common throughout Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains.  Pokeweed is easy to spot due to the bright pink color of the stem.  The small berries start green and slowly turn into a vibrant black.  Children are most often poisoned by this plant due to being drawn to the bright colors.  Only a few berries are toxic enough to cause death in an infant or child.

While this plant is toxic to mammals, birds can eat the berries.  Early settlers of the Appalachian region made salad from the leaves and stems of the very young plant.  Special cooking processes could leach away the toxins.  If not prepared properly, however, pokeweed could still have some lingering toxic effects and make the diner extremely ill.  Ingestion of this plant is not recommended.

Now, with a keen awareness, you can hike the endless trails of the Smokies knowing exactly which plants to avoid.  Watch your step around the Poison Ivy and Nettles.  Don’t make any fires with rhododendron wood.  Be sure not to eat any pokeweed berries.  If you follow this easy advice you will be that much closer to safe and rich hiking experience.  Be careful and have fun!

Leave a comment