How to identify dangerous toxic plants in your garden

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Washington state is home to over 140 different types of noxious weeds that could be extremely dangerous for humans, animals and other plants in your garden.

In a recent article, we explained what noxious weeds are, how to identify them and dispose of them when needed. But not all noxious weeds are the same. Some are extremely dangerous and need to be handled extremely carefully.

Noxious weeds are defined as “invasive, non-native plants that threaten agricultural crops, local ecosystems, or fish and wildlife habitats,” the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board states.

But your health and your garden is not only threatened by noxious weeds as other common plants in Washington state can be extremely poisonous and fatal.

Some poisonous plants can be easily mistaken for edible plants, so properly identifying plants is extremely important. Weeds in the carrot family such as poison hemlock, giant hogweed and water hemlock are toxic, but can look like carrots or parsnips, according to Robert Barker, an Emeritus Washington State University Master Gardener.

“Several years ago a client of the Master Gardener Plant clinic wanted to know how to identify Poison Hemlock because he had used the root of one of these look-alikes, thinking it was a wild carrot, to make soup and ended up in the hospital,” Barker wrote in an email.

Here are some of the most dangerous plants found in Washington state and how you can identify them:

Poison Hemlock

Hemlock_fitted.jpeg
Poison hemlock is extremely dangerous to humans and animals. Staff Idaho Press Tribune

Poison hemlock can be commonly found on roadsides, fields and vacant lots but are highly dangerous. Eating even a small amount of any part of the plant can kill a human or animal, according to King County environmental services.

The plant’s sap is poisonous and is present throughout all parts of the plant. If any part of the plan is ingested it can be fatal, and any contact with eyes can be extremely damaging. Toxins in the plant can also be absorbed through your skin and intestines, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Early symptoms after exposure can include dizziness, vomiting, confusion, drowsiness, nausea and stomachaches. Skin irritation can also occur such as swelling, redness, blisters, burning sensation or numbness.

If any symptoms start, WSDOT says to call 911 or poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

Poison hemlock can be identified by its small white flowers, fern-like leaves and stems with purple splotches on them. Poison hemlocks can also grow up to 12 feet tall, according to the Washington Noxious Weed Control Board.

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed plant
The delicate flowers of the giant hogweed belie the dangers of this toxic plant. The sap from hogweed can burn human skin. Scott Ayers The Bellingham Herald

Giant hogweed is a noxious weed on Washington’s quarantine list, as it can be highly toxic and cause severe burns.

Washington’s quarantine plants are prohibited from being transported, bought, sold or distributed in any form into or within the state.

The weed’s sap sensitizes skin to ultraviolet radiation and sunlight that results in severe burns, blistering and dermatitis. Scars and sensitivity to light can last for years after exposure, according to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.

If skin symptoms occur, stay out of sunlight and wash the infected area with water and soap. Medications or steroids can also be prescribed for the affected areas, according to the WSDOT.

Giant hogweed can be identified by its large leaves that can grow up to five feet wide, small white flowers and purplish-red stems with bumps and stiff hairs, according to the Washington Noxious Weed Control Board.

Goatsrue

Goatsrue weed
Goatsrue, a federally listed noxious weed and toxic to humans and animals if ingested, stands 4 feet to 6 feet tall with white or purple pea-like flowers, Goatsrue can closely resemble other plants such as vetch or wild licorice. King County Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Goatsrue is a noxious weed that has a low distribution in Washington, but is on Washington’s quarantine list due to its fatal symptoms.

If any part of the weed is ingested it can be fatal, and is also known to displace beneficial and native plants and destroying wildlife habitats.

Goatsrue can be identified by white, bluish lilac or reddish purple flowers, mustard colored seeds, leaflets and its maximum height of six feet, according to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.

If someone comes into contact or ingests goatsrue, call 911 or poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

Wormwood

Wormwood plant
Wormwood weeds can be identified by a sage odor, yellow flowers, small leaves, a gray-green appearance and fine, silky hairs. Olga Kazakova Getty Images/iStockphoto

Wormwood is a noxious weed found in Washington state and known for its toxicity to humans, but is also used to treat some health issues.

Wormwood has been used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, treatment for parasitic infections and to boost antioxidants according to Healthline, but also has harmful properties.

Wormwood can cause miscarriages, seizures, intestinal bleeding, allergies and kidney problems, as wormwood is toxic to the kidneys, according to Healthline. Before taking wormwood, talk to your doctor.

Wormwood weeds can be identified by a sage odor, yellow flowers, small leaves, a gray-green appearance and fine, silky hairs according to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.

Common Cowparsnip

Cowparsnip
Common cowparsnip can be identified by flat-topped white flowers and large maple leaf-shaped leaves. The plant’s height can range between three to 10 feet. Oleg Marchak Getty Images/iStockphoto

Common cowparsnip is a poisonous plant in the carrot family that has poisonous sap that produces side effects like those of giant hogweed.

The oils from common cowparsnip are phototoxic, making symptoms worse when exposed to sunlight. Contact with the plant can result in a skin rash, blistering or discoloration and should be treated as soon as symptoms start, according to WSDOT.

If you come into contact with common cowparsnip, wash the affected area with soap and water, avoid sunlight, cover with a cool compress to limit swelling and seek medical attention if eyes were exposed. Medications and steroids can also be prescribed to lessen side effects.

Common cowparsnip can be identified by flat-topped white flowers and large maple leaf-shaped leaves. The plant’s height can range between three to 10 feet.

Western Water Hemlock

Hemlock plant
Hemlock is an extremely poisonous plant. iStockphoto Getty Images

Western Water Hemlock is a poisonous plant found across Washington state that can be fatal if ingested.

All parts of western water hemlock are poisonous, and if any amount is ingested or if eyes are exposed, seek medical attention immediately. Avoid touching or handling the plant as toxins can also be absorbed through the skin and intestines.

Early symptoms after contact may include seizures, vomiting, frothing at the mouth, pupil dilation, nausea and muscle twitching, according to WSDOT. If any symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately or call 911 or poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

Western water hemlock can be identified by umbrella-shaped white and green flowers, sharply pointed leaves and purple-ish green stems.

Alyse Messmer-Smith is a service journalism reporter at the Bellingham Herald. If you like stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a subscription to our newspaper.



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