Top DFW Poisonous Plants and Venomous Snakes on the Trail: How to Avoid Them and What to Do if You Can’t: Part 1
Written by: Casey Washington
It’s the unknown crinkle in the leaves, or the leaves themselves, that prevent many of the new or want-to-be new hikers I meet from taking their first steps into nature. The idea of snakes or poison ivy lurking along the trail shouldn’t furlough the joy and connectedness that being outside brings to the human spirit. With some knowledge about how to avoid the itchy and bity things in the prairie lands surrounding DFW, and what to do if you cannot avoid them, even the more timid adventurer can step forward and enjoy all the wonders the DFW area has to offer.
First, let’s define what poisonous and venomous actually mean. Poisonous, according to good old Webster, is something that causes harm or death if absorbed, injected or ingested. So taking a bite out of a bufo marinus toad along a Rio Grande Valley hike, or your skin absorbing some of the oils from the leaves of poison ivy would be poisonous. A venomous critter, however, can cause harm or death when they inject you with their stinger or fang. We both know an emergency in the woods is still an emergency no matter what word you use to describe it, but it’s good to know the difference between poisonous and venomous for no other reason than to realize that, as far as poisonous things are concerned, you have more control in coming into contact than you realize.
Three of the most common poisonous plants you will come across in DFW are poison ivy, poison sumac and the invasive species: poison hemlock. You might be wondering where the poison oak is in this list. While poison oak is present, most of what we have in DFW are these 3 “love from a distance” plants. Here is a helpful little graph to help identity them:
Photo : Texas Parks & Wildlife
Photo : Texas Parks & Wildlife
Climbs objects or trails along the ground.
Leaves: 3 smooth or jagged leaf clusters on a reddish steam. Green in the spring/summer. Yellow, orange or red in the fall.
Flowers/Fruits: greenish-white clusters in the spring. Waxy-berry fruits in the fall
Loves wet areas. Can be a tall shrub or a small tree.
Leaves: rows of 3 to 6 on a single reddish steam with a single leaf at the end
Flowers/Fruits: The poisonous variety produces whitish-green fruit and hangs downward. There is a non poisonous variety with red fruit that grows upwards
Grows wherever it feels like and invites all it’s family to join.
Leaves: Finely divided toothy ridges, similar to parsley, on a reddish-brown steam. Young hemlock can look like carrots! It’s the evil cousin of the Apiaceae (carrot/parsley) plant family.
Flowers/Fruits: Tiny white umbrella shaped clusters
The good news with these plants is that they are pretty much avoidable, so long as you follow some common sense rules on the trail. Mainly, stay on the trail. Yes, we all have detoured to take a pee break, but trails are cut for a reason. Use them to take your selfie pics from. Instagram filters might take the wrinkles out of your face, but it may have a hard time blurring out a rash.
Proper footwear also goes a long way in preventing a brush from the crawling reach of poison ivy. Over the ankle hiking boots give the most protection, but even if you decide you're foolish enough to go flip-flopping across the range, watch where you walk! Although trails are often cut back by volunteers and the various agencies that maintain them, some plants do grow quickly in the right conditions and can grow into the trail. Carrying a trekking pole, even on flat trails, can be a tool to help push limbs or vines out of your way. Just don’t let them snap back in the face of the person behind you! My last words of wisdom on avoiding the adverse effects of poisonous plants are obvious. Don’t eat them. Duh. Pack in your own snacks and make sure to pack out your own trash.
So, you did all the right things. You stayed on the trail. You didn’t use leaves for toilet paper and you didn’t snack from Nature’s pantry. Yet you still came into contact with one of these poisonous plants! It’s the urushiol, the oil from these plants, that causes itchy rashes and/or blisters. It can take up to 3 weeks before you see a rash, so it’s important to err on the side of caution and do something about it asap.. Here is my personal plan for poison plant contact in an easy-on-the-eyes format. Please note that I am not a medical professional and am not licensed to diagnose or treat any disease.
Wash it off: If you didn’t bring your sink and soap with you on the trail, you can use some clean drinking water to rinse it. Remember that the oil can be absorbed by clothes and animal fur. Maybe wait to pet your trail pooch after you have given them a bath.
Trail Treatment: I carry with me a small vial of tea tree oil that I use on any exposed skin to help dry out the urushiol. I once walked through a whole grove of poison ivy in shorts and used tea tree oil to help the rash that ran all over my legs. In 3 days the rash was gone. I’m not in the medical profession, so do your own research before you decide that it is right for you.
At Home Treatment: Wash with soap and water and carefully remove all exposed clothes and wash them. Over the counter remedies for urushiol exposure can be bought at any local pharmacy. The good news is, the rash does NOT spread from the rash itself (although you could scar if you scratch deep enough into your skin). If you see new rashes forming, it may be that that area of the body didn’t have as high a level of urushiol exposure as the other areas and so, there is a delayed reaction..
Doctor Time: If your rash is severe, making it hard to breathe or sleep, has oozing blisters or is near your eyes or other…openings, you may want to make an appointment with your doctor.
Freelance Writer for Explore More DFW
President of the DFW Herpetological Society
MD, MS, FACEP, FACMT, FAACT, FAAEM
Director of Toxicology
Department of Emergency Medicine
HCA Houston Healthcare-Kingwood
University of Houston College of Medicine