Toxic Plants and Sneaky Shrubs You May Come Across While Riding in California

California has the most diverse ecosystems in the United States, which includes plants that can be toxic to humans. Interaction with these toxic plants is avoidable so long as you’re aware of what to look for.

In the last issue, we discussed wildlife that you may meet on the trail which also included some critters known to be toxic. In this installment, we’ll touch on some of the poisonous plants you may encounter on your ride, and that you want to avoid. A plant is considered poisonous or toxic if it causes any negative symptoms, even a mild rash.

The Center for Disease Control recommends wearing long sleeves, pants, and socks, as well as gloves to avoid skin contact with poisonous plants. It is not recommended that you get close to the plants to take a picture, for instance. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve been exposed to any of these plants, wash your clothes immediately after your ride and scrub your body in the shower to be sure.

Trail crews and advocacy organizations like SDMBA do a good job of clearing overgrowth away from trails in their regions. Their work benefits us all in not having to carefully ride our way through woodlands. But even given the rigorous work of trail crews, these toxic plants are fast-growing weeds who’s seeds can stay dormant in the soil for many years.

The general rule of thumb for identifying toxic plants in the wild (and a catchy iteration of a rhyme you may have learned as a kid) is: “leaves of three, let it be.” If you’re not sure whether or not you’ll be encountering toxic plants, websites like iNaturalist can show you the exact location of reported observations by other hikers or riders on the trail. Remember, look but don’t touch and if you think you’re in need of medical attention, call your doctor right away.

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is a woody, perennial  shrub, or vine, that you will find throughout the western United States, and is native to California. If you are in a wooded area below 5000 feet of elevation you’re most likely going to be near or around poison oak. Poison oak causes an allergic reaction in humans that can be anything from a mild rash, to blisters that will last days or months. The most harmful way to come in contact with poison oak is through inhalation, which can happen if it is burned in a fire and then inhaled through the lungs (this can be cause for concern in wildfire regions). If you are affected, the CDC recommends you immediately rinse the skin with rubbing alcohol or a degreasing soap (such as dishwashing soap) as well as any clothing

Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi)

Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi) grows and thrives in recently burned areas including forest and woodlands. It is a tall mountain shrub that has delicate purple flowers which secrete a severe skin irritant, and smells quite pungent. The leaves can also stick on you and irritate the skin. The symptoms are similar, but worse than poison oak and can include rashes, blistering, or respiratory failure. Unlike poison oak however, you cannot simply wash away the oils from poodle-dog bush because it is not water soluble. It is recommended that you contact your doctor in the case of skin exposure. It is suggested that you decontaminate your clothing by soaking overnight in a solution of sodium carbonate. You will most definitely find Poodle dog-bush in the Angeles National Forest and other Southern California wildlands that have been affected by wildfires.

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) is a weed most distinguishable by the tiny, bristly hairs that cover the stem. If the nettles penetrate the skin it can leave a rash similar to the reaction caused by poison oak. The nettles can get stuck in your skin, and if this happens avoid using tweezers to try and remove them. Instead, apply duct tape to the area and pull the tape away from the skin to remove the needles. Though aggravating, the nettle should be admired for it’s ability to survive through just about any climate in any condition.
Snapped any wildlife while riding your local trails? Send us your photos for consideration in our future series!
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