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The 5 Most Dangerous Plants in U.S. National Parks

Hiking in national parks may bring you closer to nature, but it also brings you closer to some pretty dangerous plants. From well-known offenders to some unknown creepers, these florae evolved to protect themselves from animals.

But if you come in contact with one of the worst offenders, you’ll know immediately. Rashes, welts, full-body hives, and uncontrollable itching are just some of the symptoms you can expect. 

Let’s look at the most dangerous plants in national parks. Hopefully, our guide will give you enough information to protect yourself. 

Let’s explore!

The Scoop on National Parks?

National parks are areas set aside and protected by the federal government for Americans. They belong to all of us. 

President Ulysses S. Grant created the first national parks in the United States. They were Yellowstone in 1872, followed by Yosemite and Sequoia in 1890. 

Since then, presidents have signed over 400 areas to the National Park Service. Protected from development, these federal lands are set aside and protected. Scenic areas, historical areas, battlefields, and recreation areas administered by the NPS dot the country. 

Touring these destinations is a popular RVing pass time. That’s because you can drive your rig through the areas and camp along the way. Most campgrounds are near trailheads that give you access to wilderness areas and forests. 

Nestled in our National Parks, though, are some of the most dangerous plants in America. 

What Makes a Plant Dangerous?

Unless you’re a forager, you’re unlikely to ingest wildlife while on a hike. For most of us, exposure comes through contact. When discussing most of the plants on our list, the dangerous part is the sap or oil. Other hazards include spines or barbs that catch on skin, hair, or fur. 

Naturally occurring oils are one of the worst hazards from dangerous plants. Urushiol is the chief offender with poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac. If tools used to clear them still have oil on them or clothes aren’t appropriately washed, you can risk re-exposure. 

What Should You Do If You Are Exposed to a Dangerous Plant?

If you or your pet are exposed to a dangerous plant, learn these first-aid steps that may help. 

First, you should know what poisonous species exist in the area you plan to hike. This is the most effective way to stay away from danger. You can also wear long pants and long sleeves when heading off-trail to reduce exposure. 

But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Get in there and clean. If you get urushiol oil on your skin, there are some things you can do to reduce the reaction. You should first shower and scrub the affected area with Tecnu, a soap that removes the oil. This may remove the oil before your skin has time to react. 

If you’ve already developed a rash, you can still treat it but don’t scratch. Hydrocortisone creams can help speed recovery. Oatmeal baths and calamine lotion can soothe the inflammation once it’s set in. 

You need medical attention if you’re very allergic and have a severe reaction. Symptoms may include fever, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat. 

But some folks are lucky and don’t react at all. 

Dangerous Plants in US National Parks

Toxic species vary by geographical region. You’ll encounter different dangerous plants depending on which national park you visit. These are the most common you’ll find around the United States. 

Poison Oak/Ivy

Some of the most common toxic plants you’ll encounter are plants from the sumac family. Despite different names, these weeds are cousins. They ooze urushiol, which can get on your skin, clothes, hair, shoes, and even pets. 

Nursery rhymes warning kids of their dangers help with identification. Poison ivy’s goes, “leaves of three, let it be.” With poison oak, it’s “hairy vine, no friend of mine.” Stay away if you see a plant with three smooth leaves from one node or one with ridged leaves with tiny hairs. 

These irritating weeds are almost everywhere in the United States, so be on the lookout. It’s one of the quickest ways to ruin a vacation.

Water Hemlock

One of the most dangerous plants in the western hemisphere, water hemlock is more than just an annoyance. The clusters of white flowers grow in wetlands as well as near streams. 

Topping out at three feet tall, it seeps a brown liquid that’s a potent neurotoxin. Water hemlock is native to North America and Europe. 

Cicutoxin acts on the central nervous system of humans and livestock alike. Symptoms of exposure include foaming at the mouth, rapid pulse and breathing, seizures, and death. Ingesting a lethal dose may cause death within fifteen minutes if untreated. Yes, you read that right.

And you don’t have to ingest water hemlock to be in danger because even skin contact can be lethal. 

Giant Hogweed

Giant hogweed came to the United States as an ornamental plant in the early 20th century. This vast species grows up to fourteen feet tall and has leaves that open five feet wide. This impressive species has taken root in New England and the Northwest. 

But beware of even brushing up against it. The oil found on the surface, combined with time and sunlight, causes severe chemical burns. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours after exposure, you’re still susceptible. 

If you even think you’ve been exposed, wash the area with soap and water and avoid UV rays. Experts recommend seeing your doctor after exposure because of serious health risks. 

Wild Parsnip

Wild parsnips are closely related to the cultivated version, often seen in grocery stores. You can eat the root of the wild parsnip, but don’t touch the leaves. While it’s less severe than giant hogweed burns, the sap of this dangerous plant is still highly toxic. You’ll find wild parsnip across the whole country, except Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. 

The beautiful, little yellow flowers may entice you but beware. Skin contact with the sap causes discoloration lasting up to two years. In the presence of ultraviolet light, the liquid makes skin extremely sensitive. Severe burns may occur within 24 to 48 hours. 

Wild parsnip flowers, Pastinaca sativa, an invasive species growing in a meadow at Mount Sunapee State Park in Newbury, New Hampshire.

Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus (pronounced choya) are common in the American southwest and other desert regions. They’re also known as the “jumping cactus” because the stems break apart easily. Even a strong breeze is enough to cause pieces to separate.

While not poisonous, the puncture wounds caused by the sticky plant are infected easily. The spines grow like barbed fishhooks and catch onto clothes, hair, and into the skin like velcro. Splinters from the grabby succulent may hang around for several weeks after contact. 

If you encounter these extremely painful spines, you can try removing them using a hair comb or pliers. Enjoy the beauty, but keep your distance. 

Explore National Parks and Avoid Dangerous Plants

National parks are one of the best ways to encounter unspoiled nature. Some of the best-maintained trails and most accurate maps are in these protected lands. But when you’re out exploring, pay close attention to the dangerous plants in the region. At best, they’ll ruin your day for sure. 

But if you’re not careful, some may take your life. 

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