6 Skin-Irritating Plants You Should Avoid Touching (Besides Poison Ivy)
Red skin? Blisters? Steer clear of these plants to keep irritating toxins off your body.
When you’re out in the woods, you know the drill: Beware those low-lying plants with the three pointy leaves—that poison ivy can get you! Anyone who’s had to treat one of those itchy, weepy rashes knows to keep a better eye out next time they’re on a hike.
But not all plants that are poisonous or irritating are as well known, and depending on how sensitive your skin is, there might be quite a few seemingly innocuous plants that can cause irritation, rashes, or worse. In fact, there are hundreds of species of poisonous plants in the United States, though most won’t evoke as swift of a reaction as poison ivy.
“There are several different ways that plants can irritate us,” says gardening expert Melinda Myers, author and host of The Great Courses How to Grow Anything series. Some have skin irritants on the surfaces of leaves or stems that can cause rashes and other reactions; in others, the surface of the plant is fine, but the sap that leaks out when you snap a stem can cause problems. Others are allergens for only some people, and a subset of those need sunlight to catalyze an allergic reaction in people with a sensitivity. Whatever the root of the reaction, it’s worth it to use caution to avoid irritated skin, eyes, and more. Here are six common plants you should never touch, besides poison ivy.
That rule—"If it’s three, let it be!"—isn’t just for poison ivy. Closely-related poison oak, which has rounder, oak-shaped leaves that can occur in groups of three or five, carries an oil called urushiol on all parts of the plants (leaves, stem, roots, flowers) and can bond to the skin in about a minute. It can also adhere to clothing and tools, so wash all of your gardening gear if you suspect contact. Poison sumac is in the same family, though its pointed-oval leaves are found in groups of seven or 13.
Stinging nettles carry more than two dozen chemical agents that, when they come into contact with skin, can cause inflammation, itching, burning, and blisters that last up to 12 hours. This herb can grow almost six feet tall and has pointed, jagged leaves and tiny hairs all over, which act like little needles to deliver the toxins to any person who comes into contact.
For some people, many kinds of bulbs—including hyacinths, elephant ears, tulips, daffodils, and buttercups—can cause irritant dermatitis. Touching them without gloves on while planting your garden can leave your hands red and itchy. “When I worked at a greenhouse I always used gloves, but once I touched my eye after planting hyacinth bulbs, and it was itchy and gross,” says Myers.
Various members of the aracae (arum) family—including philodendron, monstera deliciosa, caladium, dumbcane and peace lily—are popular as houseplants, but beware: Their leaves and stems contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals. While these won’t irritate your hands, they can irritate your lips, mouth, or tongue if you touch them after touching the plant, causing irritation or stinging. “At its worst, it can make you feel like your larynx is paralyzed,” says Myers. Wearing gloves or washing your hands after handling these plants can help.
While it’s known that poinsettias can be dangerous for pets if ingested, they, and others in the Euphorbia family (including the pencil tree and spurges) can also be irritating to human skin. Fortunately, most people only experience mild irritation, and it’s not actually true that poinsettias can kill you—but ingesting them could make you nauseous.
Found on the walls of many an old-fashioned home, not everyone is sensitive to English ivy, but it you’re a person who’s allergic to it, beware: You may not react the first time you encounter it, but by the second time you’re exposed, your body will be sensitized. People who are allergic to English ivy can expect redness, itching, and even small blisters after touching it.