Botanical Beasts & Where to Find Them

A new guide to the Piedmont’s most poisonous plants.

Pokeweed

You don’t have to be a gardener to know that if you see leaves of three, you should let them be. Anyone who hasn’t heeded that advice, and suffered weeks of blistering agony and the kind of insatiable itching one can only associate with a stint in purgatory, has learned the hard way—never mess with poison ivy.

But did you know that leaves of five are just as dangerous? Contact with Virginia creeper, a vine that thrives all over the state in conditions dry or wet, its sticky-tipped tendrils just as happy in rock crevices as out in the open, can cause a miserable oozing, crusting rash. Or that, if ingested, the tall purplish stem and lacy flower cap of water hemlock triggers severe stomach pain, difficulty breathing, grand mal seizures and potential death in as few as 15 minutes?

Fortunately, a new guide to poisonous plants known as the Socrates Project produced in collaboration by volunteers of the Virginia Master Naturalist program (VMN), the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University, will save eco-explorers from these kinds of disasters. Published in June, and spearheaded by Alfred Goossens of the Old Rag Chapter of VMN, the guide includes color photos of 11 of the Piedmont region’s most poisonous plants and details about the effects of coming in contact with them. We’re talking other-worldly itching, yes, but also blindness, organ failure and more.

“Many of those plants we have in our backyard and never knew they were poisonous,” says Goossens. “Just at my house here in Madison County, I found Virginia creeper, horse-nettle and pokeweed only 100 yards from my own front door.” He says when he and his fellow master naturalists learned that most of the hundreds of cases of people sickened by poisonous plants each year are children, he and his fellow master naturalists resolved to help: “The guide is written simply, without many technical words because we wanted kids to be able to read it.”

Among the experts vetting the guide—named for Socrates because the ancient Greek philosopher died after drinking an extract of poison hemlock—were Dr. Christopher P. Holstege, chief of the division of medical toxicology at the UVA School of Medicine, and John G. Jelesko, associate professor of physiology and weed science at Virginia Tech’s department of plant pathology. 

Goossens says a second edition is in the works for 2019 that will broaden the catalog to include poisonous plants from all around the state. Pubs.ext.vt.edu


This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum