There are thousands of edible species that cover the globe and it is fairly easy to stay safe in nature following one rule – never ingest any plant material if you aren’t 110% sure of what it is.
Leave the questionable specimens behind check identification with multiple trustworthy sources. The likelihood of poisoning yourself with wild plants is low as long as you are diligent with your research. Outlined below I quickly cover the most dangerous plants to interact with that you may encounter in the southeast (particularly Northern GA).
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“Leaves of three let it be”…?
A common phrase to woods men and women of the south. While this might be good introductory advice, It will be limiting as you continue to study plants. There are hundreds of species of plants that have compound leaves with leaflets in groups of 3. Only one of these plants I avoid extended contact with.
Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) perhaps the most common plant that you want to avoid touching in the North Georgia mountains.
This is a great first plant to learn and if you are spending time in nature, you are bound to find it. Every part of the plant contains oils which can cause major irritation for some folks. Avoid touching the fruit, leaves, twigs and vines. Burning poison ivy produces toxic smoke!
Identification can be tricky but here are a few helpful tips. The leaves can be “shiny” when young and often contain a little red on the leaf stalks and other areas of the stem. Poison ivy can grow as a large vine climbing trees with numerous little ‘hairs’ (also known as aerial roots), or just as often it can be seen as short, thin vines creeping along the ground. The leaves of poison ivy always come in sets of 3 and can have smooth edges, but most commonly the leaves have partially toothed edges as seen above.
I find it relatively easy to be poison ivy free even though it seems to touch almost all parts of the property in some way. It starts by recognizing the plant so it can be avoided or dealt with in a manner that minimizes contact with the oils.
Water can aid in the transfer of the oils, so it can be easier to come into contact with them when it is rainy or wet. Wash well with soap and water if you know you have been exposed. I’ve personally seen deer enjoy the leaves of poison ivy as food and many birds take advantage of the seeds. This is one way it spreads so well – seeds excreted by traveling birds often land right at the base of the trees they perch in, providing a perfectly placed trellis for the little ivy seedling.
Poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) does grow in Georgia but isn’t nearly as common as poison ivy. It grows more as a shrub and typically has larger, more rounded lobes that resemble an oak leaf. Typically learning “the look” of poison ivy is enough to keep you safe from both plants should you encounter it. Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is uncommon but does occur throughout the southeast, primarily in bogs or wetlands. Poison sumac shares general leaf shape with the red berried sumacs (which have historically been consumed around the world) but has greenish-white berries.
For the record, not every hairy vine is poison ivy. The two other most common “hairy” vines I encounter are virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with leaves of 5 (not 3) and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea barbara) with a simple leaf or “single” leaf.
More photos below:
Note the last photo, the leaflets of 3 with many teeth or serrations are not poison ivy, while the smoother, slightly larger leaves are.
Interestingly enough, the box elder (a native maple, acer negundo) can be quite easy to confuse with ivy when young. The following 2 photos are a small box elder sapling. Note the woody stems, and more tree like over all appearance.
Hognut (amphicarpaea bracteata) can be found in wet soils and could be considered a look-a-like to poison ivy. Learning the differences can yield an edible legume. Hognut has more delicate and always smooth leaves. Pictured below with the spring-time roots.
Carrot Family (Apiaceae) and Umbels
Perhaps the next most common and dangerous plants to touch come from the carrot family, which include great edibles like domesticated carrots, parsley and fennel and also the most toxic plants in North America – poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta maculata). The carrot family typically has flowers that are made up of compound umbels (think about tiny flowers making up a larger umbrella shape). I consider poison hemlock and water hemlock uncommon in the mountains of North Georgia but they do occasionally grow here.
Familiarizing yourself with the plants above through books and detailed color photos can keep you safe, as rashes can occur from touching plant parts and especially the juices. The irritation will worsen with exposure to sunlight. Seek medical attention if exposed. Consumption of any part of the plants (even the smallest bits) can be deadly!
Pictured is Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota and similar species) or wild carrot – It is technically edible in its first year of growth, but a mistaken ID could have dire consequences! For this reason I do not recommend consuming.
More info on carrot family plants that may cause a reaction: https://www.fws.gov/story/dont-touch-these-plants