7 Toxic Plants to Watch Out For While Exploring BC’s South Coast
Updated: Jan 29
Written by Roxci Bevis, DRBIPA Program Coordinator - July 27, 2021
Our natural environment is so beautiful – but it can also be quite extreme and dangerous. Getting to know the types of toxic plants in our area is beneficial because not all noxious plants appear poisonous.
Many toxic plants do have medicinal properties but should never be ingested or used topically without the supervision of an expert. Poisonous plants are one of the many reasons it is not safe to depart from managed trails without a knowledgeable guide, the right attire, and an outdoor first aid kit. But they aren't always deep in the wilderness, toxic plants can also be found in ditches, meadows, less-managed trails, and wetlands.
With this in mind, here are 7 toxic plants to watch out for while exploring the Fraser Valley and BC’s south coast:
1. Giant hogweed prefers rich, damp soil but still grows well in acidic soils and forest clearings. Required dress and tools are necessary when working around this plant. The stem hairs and leaves contain a highly toxic, clear sap that causes severe burns, blisters, and scarring when it comes into contact with the skin. Giant hogweed grows between 2 to 5 metres tall. Both toxic and resilient – it has a high shade tolerance and its seeds can remain viable for up to 15 years. Giant hogweed can be identified by its height, red spots on the stems, and small white flowers clustering around dome-shaped heads. It has coarsely-toothed dark green leaves with 3 large segments and stiff underside bristles.
2. Foxglove grows well in acidic soil and prefers partial sunlight and deep shade. It grows in multiple habitats, including woodland clearings, forests, sea-cliffs, roadsides, and rocky mountain slopes. All parts of the foxglove plant can be poisonous, especially in high amounts, due to the toxin digitalis and other cardiac glycosides. The flowers, leaves, seeds, and sap are all poisonous – even the rain water that collects in the little flower “bowls” can be toxic. Foxglove can be identified by its long, sturdy stems covered in bell-shaped flowers that are spotted inside. It usually grows between 1 metre to 1.5 metres tall with a cluster of hairy dark green leaves at the base of the plant.
3. Spurge laurel is not a Spurge or a Laurel, it is a flowering shrub that was once commonly used decoratively in gardens. It is an evergreen and loves the shade. It is not only very poisonous, it is very invasive – spreading aggressively and taking over native plant species by the roots. The berries, bark, and sap are all poisonous. Reactions can be mild or extreme, depending on the person, and include skin rashes, nausea, tongue swelling, or even falling into a coma. The plant can be identified by its long, glossy, dark green leaves growing in spiral patterns in bunches near the top of multiple woody, curved plant stems. The flowers are light green or cream in colour and become shiny black or red berries.
4. Bittersweet nightshade a is perennial vine that can sometimes appear more like a shrub at the base of the vines. It prefers to grow in moist areas and is often found along streams, rivers, creeks, and other wetlands, as well as gardens and roadsides. All parts of this plant are toxic even though both the berries and flowers may look tempting to try. It contains solanine and is poisonous. Reactions can be mild to severe, and like most poisonous berries, the risk is greater to children. Protective gear is recommended for handling this plant. It can be identified by its star-shaped flowers with yellow cones in the centre. Leaves are dark-green or purplish and grow a few inches long. The round berries start out bright green and turn an intense red when ripe.
5. Bird’s foot trefoil is a perennial plant that grows in locations with wet or moderately acidic soil. All parts of the plant are poisonous, it contains hydrogen cyanide. In small amounts this toxin has medicinal uses, but in excess, it can cause respiratory failure. Bird’s foot trefoil can be identified growing as ground cover with clusters of yellow flowers at the end of bright green, leafy stems. Small leaflets along stems are usually grouped in 5s with 3 upper rounded leaves and 2 lower pointed leaves. The fruit is a purplish-brown pod about 1-inch long, and when it dries out to form seeds, the pods resemble a bird’s foot.
6. Devil’s Club can grow up to three metres tall and likes growing in moist woods, especially along streams. This plant is related to ginseng and it has many medicinal and spiritual uses. But if the plant is touched in the wrong way the spines will break off and can cause severe infection. The fruit is also poisonous to humans, causing nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration – but is often eaten by bears. Devil’s club can be identified by its curved stems covered in tough yellow spines. It has large broad leaves with many spines on the underside. Its small white flowers hang down in a long cone-shape and mature into bright red shiny berries.
7. Stinging nettle often grows in damp areas like marshes, meadows, and ditches. The effects of coming into contact with stinging nettle are not often extreme, but include itching, numbness, swelling, and rashes. Many foragers search for stinging nettle because it is safe when steamed or cooked, but harvesting should not be done without proper training. The plant leaves a painful sting through tiny hairs on the stem and underside of its leaves. Stinging nettle can be identified by coarsely toothed, pointy leaves that start out heart shaped and grow to be several inches long. Flowers can be yellow, purple, green, or white and hang down the stems in long bunches.
It can be simple to mix up edible and toxic plant varieties – so many berries, seeds, bark, fungi, and flowers look alike. If you are not 100% sure of a plant species, be careful – avoid contact and consumption, it’s not worth the risk. It is crucial to be aware of and watch out for poisonous plants while adventuring outside.