Do you know the difference between poisonous plants in Florida and non-poisonous plants? What about snakes — can you tell the difference between venomous snakes and non-venomous ones? During our latest Florida Master Gardener class, titled Poisonous and Irritant Plants, we focused on these two things with a seminar taught by Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Miami.
Poisonous plants can be hazardous to health
Can you recognize these symptoms? A 19-year-old male was taken to a jail’s hospital ward by police, who had found him found breaking into a home in Hialeah. He had dilated pupils — 6 millimeters — and he was flushed (red) and highly agitated. His temperature was a life-threatening 107-plus.
As it turns out, he had recently ingested datura, also known as jimson weed.
Datura is far from the only toxic plant we have. Worse: The younger set, mainly teenagers, have figured out how to process these potentially deadly plants into hallucinogenic concoctions.
Angel’s trumpet, for instance, is a common decorative plant in South Florida. But according to Dr. Bernstein, it also is “frequently used by teens as a hallucinogen” and is “potentially life-threatening.” Teens usually brew it as a tea, but some smoke it.
Its harmful effects include hyperthermia, urine retention, dry mouth, blurred vision, delirium and hallucinations, and irregular heartbeat.
Other potentially hazardous plants include lantana and oleander.
Not surprisingly, different hazardous plants can affect the body in different ways. Some, such as philodendron, dieffenbachia and caladium, cause swelling of the mouth if they’re bitten. Others, including pokeweed and horse chestnut, cause intestinal disturbances.
We even have poison hemlock. Sound familiar? It should: In 399 B.C., Socrates, a Greek philosopher, was convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to die by drinking … poison hemlock.
Small critters are also dangerous
The good news is, most plants are relatively benign and can’t harm you unless you take some action, such as making tea with angel’s trumpet. The bad news is, a wide variety of insects — think fire ants, hornets, scorpions and black-widow spiders, to name a few — stand at the ready to inflict pain on the unsuspecting, including those who don’t pay attention to where they step.
And if that’s not bad enough, we also have snakes to worry about. Although 39 of Florida’s 45 indigenous species are nonvenomous, six are: the Eastern diamondback, timber and pygmy rattlesnakes; and the cottonmouth, copperhead and coral snake.
What caused their problems?
About a dozen farmworkers were sleeping in a field when it was crop-dusted. On arrival in the emergency room, they were suffering from abdominal pains, diarrhea, muscle contractions and hyper-salivation. Most had very low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and dilated pupils. All had rattling in the lungs and hyperactive bowel sounds.
The culprit was organophosphates. They’re widely used in insecticides … and in chemical-warfare agents such as nerve gas.
Fortunately, during our Poisonous and Irritant Plants class, we also learned the phone number of the Florida Poison Information Center (floridapoisoncontrol.org): 800-222-1222.