Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Identifying poisonous plants

This is something I've wondered about a bit, but since I'm in Venturing and not Boy Scouts, it isn't something I've actually had to deal with. But I still wonder.

Requirement 11 for the Tenderfoot Rank reads:
"Identify local poisonous plants; tell how to treat for exposure to them."

In the Boy Scout Handbook, the poisonous plants they list are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Here in Utah, none of those are common. In fact, according to the USDA Plants Database, neither poison sumac or poison oak (either species: pacific or atlantic) are located in the state. A species of poison ivy is, but it isn't very common. I have only seen it in a handful of places.

This makes it kind of difficult to teach identification to our scouts. I have some ideas on how I would do it (involving a hike in one of the areas where I know it is), but the way I think it is normally done, is the scouts look at the pictures in the handbook during their troop meeting, talk about them a little and then the Scoutmaster signs it off. I'd be willing to bet 99% of our scouts wouldn't recognize poison ivy if they were to fall headfirst into a thicket of it.

Okay, I'm kind of rambling here. Let's see if I can get back on topic. Quality of instruction aside, what I've really wondered about is, when the requirement says to "identify local poisonous plants" is it limited to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac? These are probably the most common poisonous plants and the most widespread, but they are certainly not the only poisonous plants local to any given area.

What about poison hemlock, water hemlock, deathcamas, jimsonweed, black henbane, false hellebore, and any number of other poisonous plants found in your area (even house plants)? Granted, these aren't necessarily toxic to the touch, but all are toxic if eaten. Isn't that important too?

I'm not suggesting that our tenderfoot scouts become expert botanists, but what does the requirement mean? What point is there in having scouts in Vernal, Utah learning to identify poison sumac, which they may never see in their life, and ignoring deathcamas, which they could find on almost every campout (and given the nature of boys, they might actually try to eat)?

There are a lot of resources to help identify poisonous plants (try local poison control centers, or field guides), and I think it would be good for our scouts to know a few of the ones they might see locally. It shouldn't be too difficult to expand beyond poison ivy. The question is, should we? And if you do, where do you draw the line?

I'd be interested in hearing some other viewpoints on this.


  1. I'm on the Wasatch Front, and there are a few patches of poison ivy (and stinging nettle) on the nearby trails. I also learned that the Big Three - poison-ivy, -oak and -sumac are all related, and all secrete the same irritant. Teaching the three-leaf motif is useful, (as is the "leaves of three, let it be" rhyme) since they're basically variations on a theme, if you will. But nothing beats seeing them, so I plan one hike specifically to go and see these in their environment. We've also had discussions on ingestion, and why you simply don't eat something you don't recognize.

    1. I had always heard the "leaves of three, let it be" thing, too. However, on actually learning what poison ivy looks like, I'm not sure it's all that useful. Yes, it has three leaves, but more often than not, boys who are looking for "leaves of three" will pick out Box Elder or something else, instead of the poison ivy they thought it was.

  2. This is really interesting. I grew up scouting in Southeastern Idaho, where the circumstance is very much what you described. Frankly there were a couple of requirements that I never really understood but did them anyway. But now as a scoutmaster in the Northeastern United States so many of those requirements make much more sense. Poison ivy grows EVERYWHERE out here and we are surrounded by dozens of varieties of oaks, maples and birches. Recognizing and identifying those plants are a necessity for outdoor activities.

    Another big thing was the use of compasses and different means of orientation. Again having grown up on a farm in Idaho you always just knew North, South, East and West. Mountains in the distance always seemed to provide a bearing, roads were laid out based on directions. The Northeast however is nothing like that. Because of the vegetation, windy roads and hills it is extremely difficult to know where you are going. So much more of the orientation methods make more sense living and doing outdoor activities here.

    The reality is there are some skills and information that is more suited to geography and locations. I think scouting has done a tremendous job at choosing skills and requirements that can be universal, but I think it's up to local leaders to get the spirit of the requirements and teach the principles behind them. If there are different poisonous plants in your area, I would recommend going over the basics of the requirement but focussing more on the application to your area.