Alaska's Poisonous Plants!

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photo of a hand in a book
Artist Rika Mouw uses a wildflower book to assist her in the field.

NPS

In Alaska we can tons of edible and delicious plant life, but there are a number of plants with potentially harmful effects too. It is essential for any outdoor adventurer to be aware of their presence and prepare a plan in the case of emergency. Many poisonous plants can strongly resemble an edible plant at first glance. One safety tactic is to teach children to stay away from all berries. Make sure an adult decides that a berry is safe before taking a bite. A good rule is to not eat anything in the wild unless you can positively identify it without question. It is also suggested to always travel into Alaska's backcountry with a regional guidebook or plant and berry species index.

Part of the fun of berry picking is exploring rural Alaska foliage. This type of wilderness is also home to many other critters. It is easy to stumble upon a bear enjoying a berry snack as well. Make sure you make a lot of noise to alert the bears of your presence and know how to handle an encounter with ease. Be aware of all wilderness elements in Alaska for the best experience possible!

Get more information on bear safety!

Baneberry / Snake Berry / Doll’s Eyes

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photo of baneberry bush
Baneberry Fruit

NPS
  • Scientific Name: Actaea rubra (Interior) Actaea arguta (coastal)
  • Habitat: Woods and dry hillsides
  • Leaves: This deciduous plant has a single stock. The leaves are large 3 to 5-parted, finely toothed, and narrow-pointed. Appearance and width of leaves change radically with the season: narrow and crinkled in the spring, broad in the summer.
  • Flowers: In May and June, small white clusters appear above the leaves.
  • Fruit: In July and August, a red or white, opaque, shiny berry develops with a black dot at the end. Each berry also has its own elongated stem.
  • Effects: The berries are poisonous and will often send the heart into cardiac arrest.

Black Twinberry / Bearberry Honeysuckle

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photo of black twinberry bush
Black Twinberry

USFS
  • Scientific Name: Lonicera involucrata
  • Habitat: This plant prefers moist woods in a few scattered spots in Southeastern Alaska.
  • Leaves: Black Twinberry is a deciduous shrub that stands up to 6 feet tall, is lance-shaped, and has leaves up to 5 inches long.
  • Flowers: In June the leaves are yellow, tubular, and grow in pairs.
  • Fruit: In August, black, soft, round berries form.
  • Effects: Though the berries can be edible, they are not tasty and the plant is notorious for absorbing toxins from the ground and nearby water. Some people may have a higher sensitivity to the absorbed toxins with a range of varied symptoms.

Devil’s Club

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Devil's Club

USFS
  • Scientific Name: Oplopanax horridus
  • Habitat: This plant grows in moist forest habitats, and is most abundant in conifer forests.
  • Leaves: The leaves are spirally arranged on the stems and are 8 to 16 inches across. The plant grows up to almost 5 feet tall. The spines are found covering the stems as well as along the upper and lower surfaces of veins of its leaves.
  • Flowers: The flowers are produced in dense clusters or umbels 4 to 8 inches in diameter, each flower is small, with five greenish-white petals.
  • Fruit: The fruits are small red berries with pits about .25 inches in diameter that grow in clusters (drupes).
  • Effects: The plant is painful to the touch due to the numerous spines that break off easily. Furthermore, consumption of the drupes is believed to be fairly toxic to humans.

Queen’s Cup / Blue Bead / Single-Flowered Clintonia

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Queen's Cup

USFS
  • Scientific Name: Clintonia uniflora
  • Habitat: This plant grows in moist forests at lower elevations.
  • Leaves: The leaves are 3 to 6 inches long. Each plant has 3 fleshy leaves with hairy edges.
  • Flowers: In June, white flowers appear that are about 1 inch in diameter with 6 tepals.
  • Fruit: In August, the plant develops a blue berry.
  • Effects: Though eaten regularly by birds and animals, the berry may be toxic to people. Considering the berry is not palatable anyway, it is best to consider this berry inedible.

Red-Twig Dogwood / Red-Osier Dogwood

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Red-Twig Dogwood

Agriculture.org
  • Scientific Name: Cornus stolonifera
  • Habitat: Red-Twig Dogwood grows at the edges of moist land or lakes at low elevations.
  • Leaves: This is a deciduous shrub that grows 5 to 15 feet tall. It contains elliptical or oval leaves that are dark green on top and somewhat hairy below.
  • Flowers: In June, the shrub produces flowers that are white, with four small green sepals.
  • Fruit: In August, the shrub produces a small white berry that is soft and has a small spot at the end.
  • Effects: The berry is bitter, considered inedible, and will cause minor irritation if ingested.

Snowberry / Waxberry

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Snowberry

Oregon
  • Scientific Name: Symphoricarpos albus
  • Habitat: Snowberry grows in woodlands at lower elevations
  • Leaves: This is a deciduous shrub that grows to 4 feet in height. The leaves are oval, and grow up to 3 inches in length. The leaves grow on opposite sides of a stem and are dark green above, and white beneath.
  • Flowers: In June, the flowers are pink and white, small, and bell-shaped.
  • Fruit: In August, the plant develops berries that are white, round, soft and opaque.
  • Effects: Although the berry is an important winter food source for some birds, it is considered poisonous to humans. The berries contain alkaloids that cause mild symptoms of vomiting and dizziness.

Arrowgrass

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photo of arrowgrass in seed
Arrowgrass

USDA
  • Scientific Name: Triglochin maritima
  • Habitat: Arrowgrass prefers several types of moist soil and can grow in water. It can tolerate strong wind, but not maritime exposure. Prefers salt marshes and grassy areas near the sea.
  • Leaves: This plant usually grows 6-18 inches tall, but the slender flower stalks may reach 5 feet.
  • Flowers: Small, green flowers appear close together along the upper part of the stalk early in the season. Later, the flowers develop into golden-brown.
  • Fruit: Not applicable.
  • Effects: When Arrowgrass is dry, it contains hydrocyanic acid which, when ingested in quantity, can result in death from respiratory failure.

Cow Parsnip

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Cow Parsnip

NPS
  • Scientific Name: Heracleum maximum
  • Habitat: This plant grows in moist, shaded habitats and can thrive in multiple types of soil.
  • Leaves: Cow Parsnip is a tall herb, reaching to heights of over two meters. The leaves are very large, up to 18 inches across and divided into lobes.
  • Flowers: Cow Parsnip has characteristic flower umbels that are about 20 cm across; these may be flat-topped or more rounded, and are always white.
  • Fruit: Not Applicable
  • Effects: The sap of this plant contains various phototoxic chemicals that can make the skin (especially light skin) extremely sensitive to sunlight and more prone to sunburn. Skin contact with juice from the plant followed by exposure to sunlight can cause dermatitis, which can range from a mild, red rash to severe skin blistering. Simply avoid touching the plant with bare skin by wearing long sleeves and long pants.

Death Camas

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Death Camas

BLM
  • Scientific Name: Anticlea elegans
  • Habitat: Death Camas grows in areas along streams and in forest clearings and meadows from about 6000 to 12000 feet in the mountains.
  • Leaves: The leaves are linear, smooth, and have parallel veins.
  • Flowers: The flowers appear saucerlike, with 6 white petals and 6 stamen. The flowers spiral around the stalk (raceme).
  • Fruit: Not applicable
  • Effects: The effects of the toxic alkaloids may appear from 1-8 hours after eating the plant. Recovery usually occurs within 24 hours. Symptoms include excessive salivation, burning and numbness of the lips and mouth, thirst, headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain, persistent vomiting, diarrhea, muscular weakness, confusion, slow and irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, subnormal body temperature.

Skunk Cabbage

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Skunk Cabbage

USFS
  • Scientific Name: Lysichiton americanum
  • Habitat: Skunk Cabbage is found in wet woodlands and meadows.
  • Leaves: The leaves are large, thick, and can grow up to 40 inches in length. These plants are often associated with a strong odor similar to a skunk.
  • Flowers: From April to June, these plants are small and yellow on a thick spike surrounded by a large yellow spathe.
  • Fruit: In August, these plants are green, soft, and sparse.
  • Effects: Considered inedible, Skunk Cabbage contains poisonous acids that can irritate the gastrointestinal system.

Wild Calla

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Wild Calla

NPS
  • Scientific Name: Calla palustris
  • Habitat: This plant can be found in shallow water along the edges of lakes and slow-moving streams.
  • Leaves: The leaves are heart-shaped on a thick stem that grow from creeping rootstocks. The leaves are thick and shiny.
  • Flowers: In June and July, very small green flowers develop on a dense spike atop a large white heart-shaped spathe.
  • Fruit: In August, this plant forms a soft red berry.
  • Effects: The entire plant contains poisonous acids and saponin-like substances that will irritate the mouth and throat and can cause severe swelling.

Resources

  • Pratt, Verna E. Alaska's Wild Berries and Berry-like Fruit. Anchorage, AK: Alaskakrafts, 1995. Print.
  • Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Pub., 1997. Print.
  • Welcome to the PLANTS Database | USDA PLANTS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2012. .