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Identifying Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms In America & Treating Poisoning

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: March 23, 2020
Identifying Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms In America & Treating Poisoning

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Just as it is important to know about edibles in your area, it is also very important to know what things are poisonous where you live. Sometimes edible and poisonous things can look very similar, like in the case of mushrooms. At the same time, people can become overly fearful of the natural wonders around them. You can learn how to tell the difference between things with a little effort. While I cannot cover every single plant or mushroom that comes to mind, I am going to talk about some of the more common ones that are harmful to people and animals. Some of these are grown as ornamentals and some are not native to the USA but naturalized enough that one would do well to recognize them.

Desperation and nutritional disorders can lead to people eating things they normally would not

During an SHTF situation or long emergency, people can get desperate and that desperation can lead to some hasty decisions about what to eat. Knowing what it what before times get bad is a valuable skill that will cost you little more than some of your time and maybe a field guide although at the moment you can get a lot of info online. For a major situation it is nice to have a binder or paper copy with plant info. Either print out reliable info you find or invest in a good book for your area on plants.

Knowledge is power

Remember that people with knowledge of these plants may use them as biological weapons. Poison is serious and don’t think people will be above it in an SHTF scenario. There are absolutely people who would use poison from plants during an SHTF scenario. Most of those that have considered it an option are thinking about protecting themselves, not just poisoning someone they don’t like but it still is worth noting that people have the knowledge and power to use nature against someone.

This is scary in a way because during an SHTF scenario you don’t necessarily have control over the source of your sustenance, especially if the situation is extended and your supplies are exhausted. There is no good answer for that scenario. I wouldn’t trust some people, regardless. It is a personal choice that no one can make for you.

If you want foraging for food to be a realistic option, then you should educate yourself now.

Poison Ivy

A whole lot of painful trouble! This is Poison Ivy at its prime. It is important to know what this looks like even if it doesn’t grow in your area because it is very common in the USA and the effects can be awful. This is the plant responsible for the only non routine doctors visit I have had in many years!

Oh boy, I hate this stuff. When I was younger, I was not sensitive to it but as I hit my late 20s and early 30s it became apparent that I needed to be very careful. When I was weedeating the vineyard a few years back, I got my eyes full of it even though I had glasses on. Perhaps I had some oil on my hands or similar. Regardless it led to my eyes and face swelling so badly that I eventually had to go to the doctor and get a cortisone shot. I should have gone sooner, but I thought it would go away and not get worse.

Livestock can eat Poison Ivy. We managed to rid ourselves of a lot of it by grazing goats, sheep, and cattle, over the years as well as mowing, weedeating, and encouraging grass to grow by reseeding. I will say it is not a favorite of farm animals and they will choose other forage over it but they will eat some occasionally and it makes a difference.

You can build up resistance to poison ivy by taking poison ivy pills. These are totally homeopathic and do not interact with any medications that I know of. Since they are literally made from poison ivy itself, they are very inexpensive. Even if you don’t take some to build up resistance, having some on hand can help prevent and treat symptoms if someone is exposed. This is especially helpful because people can scratch and spread the oils and that can even lead to infection. I can honestly say since I used these pills, even when exposed to Poison Ivy, I have had very little itching or blistering and I have not had any more alarming major reactions requiring a doctor.

Poison Ivy Pills

Water Hemlock

Water Hemlock is normally found in wet and boggy places.

This is a very deadly plant. The USDA says it is the most violently toxic plant in North America. Poisonings are most common with livestock but they don’t happen often because most farmers rid their farms of this a long time ago. With the passage of environmental regulations that often require farmers to keep livestock out of streams, the effect is less access to it even if it does pop up. Water Hemlock also occurs in meadows and other areas that stay fairly wet.

Severe seizures and convulsions caused by this plant mean you have to get medical attention fast. Livestock usually just dies. Symptoms and death occur 15 minutes to 6 hours later depending on species and quantity consumed.

If you move to a rural area or land that has running water and has not been used much, it is good to pay attention to wet areas and eradicate any highly toxic plants that could harm your livestock or pose a serious threat to kids.


Oleander in bloom. Beautiful and very toxic!

When you first see this plant, it is hard not to be enthralled with how beautiful it is. However, beneath this beauty is a lot of potent toxins.  Every part of this plant is poisonous, but it is so widely grown that it has the distinction of being one of the most commonly planted poisonous plants. It thrives in tropical and subtropical climates and is grown as far North as Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Those that live in California are likely familiar with this plant since millions of them dot the sides of highways. If ingested it is rarely fatal in humans because it is so bitter that most will not ingest enough to cause a fatality. Toddlers and children are the most at risk of course but the only documented case in recent times was two toddlers that were suffering from a malnutrition disorder at the time. They had been recently adopted from Siberia by parents in California and believed to be unknowingly suffering from Pica, a psychological disorder where things that are normally considered distasteful are consumed. Pica occurs in victims of malnutrition.

Oleander is very toxic to livestock. From my research, I discovered that just 100 grams can kill a full-grown horse. If you plan on farming, remove any of this ornamental from your property. There are plenty of other plants out there that are pretty to look at. Take it from someone that has been keeping livestock for years, someone will leave the gate open, trees will fall, ect and that can lead to animals getting into areas that you try hard to keep them out of. If I lived where this was planted on highways I would take a lot of precautions to prevent any roaming stock.


Pokeberry is a pretty plant in some ways but it can really take over a place if you let it spread. It is best to cut it down immediately when it comes up from seed. If you want a few plants, you will have to make an effort to stop it from spreading all over your property.

Strangely enough, the leaves of the Pokeberry, are consumed in the South. Poke salad is actually pretty popular among some but it used to be even more common. The key is preparing it properly by boiling it and pouring the water off.  To me it is not worth it.

The stalk and the berries of the poke plant are poisonous. That didn’t stop kids from using the berries as paint on their skin years ago. Like a lot of poisons, you actually have to eat it to have ill effects. Your skin is a very good barrier.

Poke often comes up in disturbed soil. We had a ton of it come up when we disturbed soil in front of our house for the septic tank to go in. Over time, we have managed to pretty much eradicate it by weedeating it down before it spreads.

Mountain Laurel

Laurel is so pretty when in full bloom.

The laurel family is known for being quite toxic. This is a very common native plant where I live and it is very pretty but since it is not good for our grazing animals and keeps forage and grass from growing underneath it, we have taken steps to reduce how much laurel is on our property. When it comes to livestock, people often say that laurel is deadly, but we have found that animals just get very sick and projectile vomit a toxic green substance when they eat it. This happens once usually and an animal will learn. Our sheep will nibble on it a little bit but not enough to get sick. I think some breeds of animal are more sensitive to the toxins than others and there is also a dosage issue. Eating a few leaves to a sheep is a lot more than if a cow did the same thing.

Deadly Nightshade

While Nightshade is not a native plant to North America, it is naturalized throughout the United States. We had a lot of it growing out in the North Cascades of western Washington. It seemed to like to grow on the roadside and was often mixed in with edible Salmonberries. Of course the Salmonberry and Nightshade berry look very different so it was easy to avoid Nightshade when picking fruit.  This is a plant that is known for being attractive to very young kids so it is a good idea to kill it if you see it growing on your property. It is not a useful plant at all. If you want berries and forage for birds and wildlife, encourage other things to grow.

Castor Bean Plant

Castor Bean plant at the flowering stage.

Sometimes these get called Mole plants where I live because where they grow you will not get a lot of small varmints. The Castor Bean plant is actually the main source of one of the most deadly poisons out there. Ricin is nothing to mess with. This is a plant that produces a compound that is strong enough that it has been used in assassinations during modern times. Bulgarian dissident journalist Georgi Markov was poisoned in London in September 1978 when a pellet containing ricin was shot from an umbrella and into his leg by an assassin. It sounds like something from a James Bond movie but it is very real and documented.

It is said that a mere 8 castor beans crushed and ingested is a lethal dose for an adult. Look for castor bean plants as ornamentals or growing in areas that were previously disturbed and then allowed to become overgrown.


Wow is this stuff bad. Just a small amount can literally get you in the mental ward for days. I have several relatives that used to work at a well known mental hospital in the area and they saw firsthand what Jimson could do to a person. If someone was admitted that had taken or been given Jimson, they would have to be watched for days until they came back to reality. There was not much that could be done expect take care of them and watch them and listen to whatever craziness that came out of their mind.

You might ask why on earth anyone would even want to take something like that and the answer is that is the hallucinogenic properties. People don’t understand what they are really doing when they take this stuff. It is usually someone that either eats it by mistake or has little experience with hallucinogenic substances and thinks they are just doing something similar to magic mushrooms.

If we see Jimson come up on the farm, we get rid of it. The few times the sheep have found a little they definitely hallucinated and acted crazy. It was just a sheep or two but they ran around like crazy and had wild eyes. Not good.


While some people do attempt to eat some mushrooms in the Amanita family, for your own safety I advise staying away from this entire family of mushroom. It is never worth the risk. They are very pretty so they are attractive to kids. This is why it is so important to teach kids as young as possible to avoid touching any mushroom in the wild. Unfortunately, a lot of the mushrooms in fairy tales are Amanitas so you have to doubly stress that they are not okay to eat.

Some use Amanita muscaria for its psychoactive properties but it is not a psilocybin mushroom. It is important to know these things in case you need to help someone out. During a long emergency or SHTF scenario, things can come up that you wouldn’t expect to have to deal with.

The Destroying Angel or Death Cap

The Destroying Angel before the cap has opened. Notice the egg like base. All mushrooms in the Amanita family look like they rise up from the ground via an egg.

Even during good times, most people do not survive eating this mushroom. During an SHTF situation all you could do is just make someone comfortable. It is horrible to think about but then again this is the most deadly mushroom in America so one would expect it to be particularly awful. Those that do survive poisoning only do so with major medical care and hospitalization and even then a liver transplant may be required.

We used to have a lot of these on our property before we started using it for farming and grazing a lot. I knew they were there as a teenager and was simply amazed how many grew up on the mountain. It has been a long time since we saw one. Honestly, at this point if I saw one I would be tempted to spray vinegar or put lime on it before the cap opened to spread spores. There is no reason to have this type of mushroom around.

Conocybe filaris

Just because you see a veil like ring on a stem doesn’t mean a mushroom is psychoactive. In the wild, a ring often signifies a poisonous mushroom that you should leave alone!

This little mushroom is very common in the Pacific Northwest and very deadly. It grows widely on lawns in the area and on woodchips and mulch. You find quite a few in a patch.  Unfortunately, some mistake this mushroom for a magic mushroom containing psilocybin and suffer the consequences. This mushroom contains the same type of toxins as the Destroying Angel. Ingestion leads to liver failure

Galerina marginata

There are so many beautiful things in nature that are deadly.

The gills on the underside of the caps can be seen, as well as a small ring of tissue on the upper half to third of the whitish-brown stems. Visible among the larger mushrooms are about a dozen miniature versions of the larger mushrooms, with hemispherical caps that do not have the gills exposed.” />

The Galerina looks very similar to some of the magic mushrooms that grow wild. This is at least part of the reason some think that psychoactive mushrooms kill people. Ingestion leads to liver damage, hypothermia, vomiting, and many more unpleasant symptoms.

Treating Poisoning

While you need to help someone right away, one of the first things that should be done is determining what was ingested. This is not always clear but there may be some indication if you take a minute. Perhaps there is a part of a plant nearby or a bowl with some fried up mushrooms? In the case of drugs, pill bottles, needles, etc, are a major sign to look for although people that are getting substances illegally often carry pills in bottles that are not labeled correctly.

The medical community often debates the best methods for treating different types of poisoning. One thing I have found that most agree on is the use of activated charcoal. This is a very inexpensive addition to your preps, and it is useful for occasional cleansing and detoxification.

Activated charcoal is inexpensive to buy but it can be made at home too. For more information on activated charcoal uses as well as how to use it to treat poisoning, please refer to the in-depth post below. It has, so many uses for survival as well as everyday beauty and hygiene.

“Best Uses For Activated Charcoal & How to Make It”

Stabilizing the victim

Vomiting and convulsions can be major symptoms. Loss of consciousness or inability to move can also result. You need to do your best to keep airways clear. This means making sure that if a person vomits, their head is tilted to the side or down so they don’t choke. Convulsions may pass but if there is anyway at all to get someone professional medical care, you should do it. During an SHTF scenario you may not be able to do this.

Call Poison Control

During regular times, the Poison Control Center is a great resource for getting advice and help. Of course this should not be entirely who you rely on.  Speed is important. Poison Control can help you offer care until you get medical attention. The Poison Control Center is also an excellent resource if you cannot talk to a pharmacist and want to check drug interactions before taking something new. To reach Poison Control, call 1-800-222-1222 24 hours per day. You can text POISON to 797979 to save contact info for Poison Control in your phone for fast access.

Remember that some people are more sensitive to substances than others.

There are some plants and mushrooms that people do eat but that can cause gastrointestinal distress in others. An example of this is the Chicken of the Woods mushroom. It is advised that the first time you try Chicken of the Woods; you eat a small amount and see how you feel. While most can eat the mushroom just fine, some get an upset stomach. What is fine for some is slightly toxic to others so keep that in mind if you forage for edible plants or fungi. Of course never eat any mushroom you are not 100% sure is the species you think it is. Chicken of the Woods is a mushroom that is fairly easy to identify luckily.

Pet sensitivities vary by species and size

If you have pets, it is worthwhile to check if a plant is toxic before bringing it to your property. Did you know that just a leaf or two of the common Easter Lily can kill a cat? Avocados are highly toxic to birds and just slightly less toxic to dogs. The list could go on and on.

Poison prevention  and education for children

There is plenty you can do to educate kids about poisonous plants in your area.  Here are a few tips.

  • Start educating kids as young as possible about the great outdoors.
  • Teach kids to not stick whatever is around in their mouths
  • Keep an eye on very young kids when out playing
  • Eliminate toxic plants from common play areas
  • Point out toxic plants to kids and tell them the truth about what can happen if they eat them. This is a time when a little scariness is a good thing that can prevent great harm
  • Quiz kids on plants and mushrooms when out on walks or running around your property. This is educational and fun for many and a great activity for homeschool families to do together

Fairy tales and cartoons can teach poor lessons about plants and mushrooms

Be aware of books and cartoons that kids are exposed to. It may sound silly but think about how many fairy tales feature giant mushrooms that never cause harm to the characters? There may be other things I am missing too. Maybe I am just being paranoid but it is better to be safe and educate kids about the reality of things. Nothing wrong with fairy tales but kids do need to be taught to know the difference between stories and reality.

Some kids cannot or will not take dangers as seriously as others

Realize that some kids will need to be watched around plants and mushrooms more than others. Sorry but I have seen too many kids that will immediately try to do the opposite of what you tell them. A cousin’s child was warned about the electric fence because at the time we had a very powerful fence box at the time and the first thing he did after warning was reach for the fence but was luckily stopped.

Kids that have learning disabilities and other conditions may simply not be able to remember what is dangerous or take the danger seriously. This will vary by the child.

Take some classes to gain experience identifying plants

Many community centers and nature groups exist that offer education hikes and classes. Community colleges often have inexpensive classes that you can take to learn about what is edible and what is toxic in your area. Those that move to a new region may consider taking a course to learn about their new surroundings.

Have you ever been treated for poisoning related to plants or mushrooms?

Do you know of other plants or mushrooms you think people should be aware of?

Do you have any books you recommend to those that want to be more aware of the toxic plants in their area?

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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3 Responses to “Identifying Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms In America & Treating Poisoning”

  1. Along with poison ivy you might mention Toxicodendron diversilobum, commonly named Pacific poison oak or western poison oak, is a woody vine or shrub in the sumac family, Anacardiaceae. It is widely distributed in western North America. Especially in the Oregon Cascade mountains and in my vegetable garden. The skin rash can be very miserable.

  2. Great article. I just discovered I have poison ivy right outside my back door. We have cats and dogs so this article was helpful there too.

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