Poison from the bear in the garden


Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 2nd March 2013

There’s a classic demonstration of the way the human brain works known as the Selective Attention Test. Here’s one example from YouTube. Having been told to count the number of passes of the ball, very few people even notice the gorilla walk slowly through the scene. I had that sort of experience when I caught the end of a TV programme earlier this week.

It was a BBC wildlife programme called ‘Johnny Kingdom and the Bears of Alaska’. I’ll confess I was put off watching it because my listing magazine called Mr Kingdom an amateur photographer. For me, the idea that someone who has made a number of wildlife documentaries and was filming wildlife for many years before being discovered should still be called an amateur was stretching the language a bit far.

Switching channels, however, I did come across it close to the climax of Mr Kingdom’s one hour quest to see bears in their natural environment catching salmon with their bare ‘hands’ in the way Johnny did at home when a young man. His search ended, successfully, on Kodiak Island in the far north of the Pacific Ocean and now part of the US state of Alaska. The viewer was supposed to be watching in awe as a female bear caught a fish and then went, with her cub, up the side of the lake to feed. My selective attention, however, could only focus on all the Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, growing on the banks. (See January 2014 update.)

I took this screengrab and, in spite of the low quality, you should be able to see just how much of this plant is visible.

I’m neither surprised not disappointed that no mention was made of the plant but, for me, it just showed how unnatural this supposedly natural environment was. I checked online and confirmed that Alaska considers it to be an invasive plant and has programmes to try and control it though I assume these have to be focussed on land close to centres of population.

There is, of course, no risk to the bears from this plant because their thick fur will prevent the furocoumarins in the plant from reaching their skin but, to me at least, it demonstrated that even supposedly remote, wilderness areas are being impacted by the unknowing actions of our Victorian ancestors. Perhaps their focus on having an impressive garden plant and not considering the consequences of moving it from its home territory can be seen as a form of selective attention.

Two other points resonated with me as I watched selected parts of the programme and researched what Alaska is doing about giant hogweed. I came across this pdf of a slide presentation from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The eighth slide is about Alaska’s ‘Weed Free’ forage/straw programme. It seems that Alaska has a scheme for checking that no harmful weeds are getting into animal feed with tags being affixed to bales to confirm the quality.

I’m sure such a scheme adds to the cost of feed but it seems to me to be an excellent idea and one which, if implemented in the UK, might prevent horses being harmed by the inclusion of Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, in feed.

The other thing that interested me was that the filming took place on Kodiak Island. This is one of the islands in the northern Pacific Ocean where, a very long time ago, the native people used poison extracted from plants in the Aconitum genus in order to kill whales.

Its use to poison the tip of a projectile is best seen when applied to harpoons used in whale hunting. The aboriginal peoples of the Kamchatka peninsula, Kurile, Kodiak and Aleutian islands in the far North Pacific Ocean, used lances coated with aconite poison to hunt whales. The lance heads were of stone and were intended to break off from the shaft so as to remain in place in the whale’s blubber. The whale would be lanced and left to die in the hope that the dead whale would wash up on one of the islands. Each whaler had his own lance head design so that people finding a dead whale would know who had killed it. Cultural rules dictated that the whale belonged to the killer but he would share it with the finders.

The first thing that would be done when a dead whale was found was that the flesh around the wound would be cut out, whether to remove the poisoned area or as a means of retrieving the point of the lance is unsure. Not all whales would beach in the hunters’ islands and some were found by the Nootka people further to the east. It is reported that the Nootka would not eat these whales though whether that was due to the presence of the aconite poison or because, the whale having taken much longer to come to shore, the meat had in any event become rotten cannot be determined.

Because not all whales would end up beached it is not possible to know how successful the poisoning was though some whales would have an old set of healed wounds indicating that they had survived a previous poison lance attack.

The effect of the poison is, also, unknown. It may that a big enough dose entered the bloodstream to poison the animal’s central nervous system or it may be that it caused only a local irritation which was enough to cause the animal to thrash around and, finally, die of exhaustion. There are some reports of villagers falling ill after eating whale meat though it seems unlikely that this would be the result of the poison as this is metabolised by the victim, in this case the whale.

Part of the lack of detailed information is that the use of poison was kept secret in favour of imbuing whaling with magic properties. Thus the fat from the corpse of a dead whaler would be made into grease and applied to the lance head to transfer the skill of the dead whaler to his successor.

Update – January 2014

I received an email from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources in the Division of Agriculture explaining that the plants I had seen were Heracleum lanatum (confusingly known as cow parsnip in the USA whereas in the UK Heracleum sphondylium bears that common name) a plant that grows to up to 3 metres tall and so is easily confused with the mantegazzianum, giant hogweed.

The giant hogweed has only ever been found in the south-east of the state (hence its inclusion in the presentation I linked to) and has been eradicated.


Shrubs With Poisonous Berries, Seeds, or Leaves

Don’t grow these bushes and vines around small children

While some of the better-known poisonous plants are perennials such as foxglove (Digitalis spp.) and annuals (in the North) such as castor bean (Ricinus communis), there are also a number of shrubs that bear poisonous berries, seeds, or leaves. Many of these bushes are so commonly grown that, even if we have learned of their toxicity, it is easy for us to let our guard down around them.

But when you have to decide whether or not to grow poisonous shrubs, it is best always to err on the side of caution, especially if you have small children. It is also a concern when you have pets. Dogs are rambunctious and tend to sample plants freely, so you should steer clear of growing plants that are poisonous to dogs. But even our more restrained feline friends will try to eat plant material, some of which is poisonous for them. For example, azalea shrubs are toxic to cats.

Sometimes, just one part of a plant will be toxic. Some bushes bear poisonous berries or seeds, while, with others, it may be toxic leaves (or roots, stems, bark, or flowers) that present a danger. Still, other shrubs may have multiple poisonous parts or be toxic all over.

Shrubs With Poisonous Berries

Pokeweed is included because it is classified by botanists as a shrub and because it is very commonly found in the yard. It is a wild plant, not a landscape shrub. Nonetheless, its poisonous nature is something to keep in mind, because children are very much attracted to its colorful berries.

Shrubs With Poisonous Seeds

  • Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpina mexicana) and other species of Caesalpinia
  • Yew bushes (Taxus spp.)

The toxicity of yew is tricky to discuss. Technically, it is only the seed that is toxic: The flesh, itself of the red berry (actually classified as an “aril”) is not. But any berries with toxic seeds are essentially “poisonous berries,” since eating the berries means exposing yourself to the seeds.

Bushes With Multiple Poisonous Plant Parts, Including Leaves

Mountain laurel is related to the wild bush named “lambkill” that is notorious for being poisonous. Both, in turn, are related to Andromeda, azalea, and rhododendron shrubs. Gardeners who live in cold climates may think of lantana as a plant grown in hanging pots, but, in warm regions, it grows as a shrub.

Special Cases

A few other kinds of shrubs are problematic to our health, but not necessarily because they might be eaten by accident. Everyone has heard of the poisonous shrubs, poison sumac (Rhus vernix) and poison oak (Rhus diversilobum). They are examples of bushes that we try to avoid brushing up against our skin because they can cause nasty rashes. They are wild plants, but poison oak may very well be growing in your yard, depending on the region in which you live.

Another special case is presented by poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima). People with latex allergies can become sick just by being in the same room with a poinsettia shrub (they do not even have to touch it to experience the ill effects).

Poisonous Vines

Vines can often be pruned so as to behave like bushes, so vines are sometimes grouped with shrubs for the purpose of compiling lists, such as lists of toxic plants. Here are some vine plants that you should not be growing if kids will be playing in the yard:

Wild plants associated with American bittersweet and equally poisonous (or even more so) are Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbicularis) and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). Poison ivy, like its relatives, poison oak and poison sumac, is a weed that can make your skin itch after you come into contact with it. Virginia creeper is toxic on two levels:

  • The leaves are a skin irritant for some people.
  • The vine bears poisonous berries.

Likewise, trumpet vine is poisonous whether you eat it or (for some people) touch it.


Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

Most Common Symptoms

Bear Grass Poisoning Average Cost

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Average Cost

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What is Bear Grass Poisoning?

The name Bear Grass is used to refer to several grass-like plants that grow in the western and southwestern parts of the United States. Different types of Bear Grass can be found in floral decorations and the leaves are often dried to make baskets. The main species known by the name Bear Grass is Xerophyllum tenax. This plant is an important part of the fire ecology of the region since the roots can survive fire and Bear Grass is one of the first plants to grow back after a burning. Xerophyllum tenax grows to be about 4.5 feet tall with a fan of tough, olive-colored leaves protruding from the base of the plant. The flower stalk may be as high as six feet with many small cream-colored, saucer-shaped flowers that have a sweet aroma. Although it resembles a grass,

Xerophyllum tenax belongs to the Melanthiaceae (Bunchflower) family which is a member of the Liliales (Lily) order. This group of species is categorized by incompletely fused pistons and bunches of lily-like flowers and should be differentiated from species belonging to the Bear Grass subfamily which is part of the Asparagus Family, another subsection of the Lily order. Many types of Nolina species in this family are also referred to as Bear Grass. These plants are usually smaller, growing only about 1- 1 ½ feet tall with clusters of white flowers about 10 inches long. Xerophyllum tenax and other types of Bear Grass can be an important food source for deer, but many Lily-related species can be toxic to dogs and even more so to cats. This type of grass is too tough for dogs to digest, so it will make them vomit. More severe reactions could include swelling of the mouth and throat, diarrhea, and muscle convulsions, but this is more common in cats than dogs.

Bear Grass species grow wild throughout the southern and western parts of the United States and many are also cultivated for ornamental use in bouquets. Bear Grass can be mildly toxic to dogs with symptoms of vomiting and gastrointestinal upset.

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Symptoms of Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

These are the symptoms you should look for if your dog eats Bear Grass.

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Poor appetite
  • Swelling in the mouth or throat
  • Abdominal sensitivity
  • Muscle convulsions


Bear grass is a common name that could be used to refer to a number of different plants.

Xerophyllum tenax

  • The most common wild species known by the name of Bear Grass
  • This plant is found throughout western North America from British Columbia south to California and as far east as Wyoming

Nolina Species (Texas Bear Grass, Florida Bear Grass, Peninsula Bear Grass, Foothill Bear Grass etc.)

  • The Nolina genus is a group of tropical flowering plants that have adapted to live in the desert
  • They are found throughout Mexico, but their range also extends into the southern United States. Many species are also cultivated for ornamental use.

Causes of Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

These factors are often associated with Bear Grass poisoning.

  • Dog eating a bouquet that contains Bear Grass
  • Bear Grass growing in your garden
  • Living in an area where Bear Grass grows wild
  • Dogs that like to eat grass

Diagnosis of Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

If your dog eats a large amount of Bear Grass, you should call the veterinarian and discuss the chances of toxicity based on your dog’s weight and breed, as well as the species of grass. If the veterinarian wants to see your dog in person, bring a sample of the grass for analysis. Take immediate action for signs of severe vomiting, diarrhea and muscle spasms. If emergency veterinary treatment is not available, call a poison hotline and discuss what you think your dog ate with a professional agent.

Diagnosis will be based on symptoms and a history of grass ingestion. The veterinarian may order an abdominal x-ray to evaluate whether there is a ball of undigested grass in your dog’s stomach. If the vomit is a pinkish color, or there is actual blood in it this will suggest the grass is causing gastrointestinal irritation. Blood and urine tests may be necessary to rule out infection and other serious toxicities, especially if you didn’t see the incident and are unsure what is causing your dog’s symptoms.

Treatment of Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

Mild vomiting or gastrointestinal upset that passes quickly won’t require further treatment. If symptoms are severe, the veterinarian may prescribe antacids or medications to protect the stomach lining. If there is undigested grass stuck in your dog’s stomach, medication may be given to induce vomiting. In severe cases, gastric lavage under anesthesia could be necessary to remove the grass. Fluid treatment will be given for severe vomiting and diarrhea that leads to dehydration.

Recovery of Bear Grass Poisoning in Dogs

Bear Grass poisoning is typically mild and most dogs will make a complete recovery. However, it’s a good idea to keep track of the local species that cause problems for your dog and avoid them if possible. If your dog is prone to eating grasses, ask the veterinarian to recommend a species that is safe for him. Plant this type of grass around the house so that your dog will be less likely to be interested in toxic plants. Dogs should be trained not to eat floral bouquets, but it’s still a good idea to display flowers in places your dog can’t reach. Bear Grass and many other types of decorative species are unsafe for dogs to ingest.


Wild bear killed by ‘deliberate’ poisoning in Italy

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A wild bear that was found dead in Italy was deliberately poisoned, investigators have revealed, raising fears that local people are so opposed to the reintroduction of the animals that they are resorting to killing them illegally.

The large male bear was one of about 50 that roams the forests and valleys of the Dolomites, after the species was reintroduced to northern Italy in the 1990s.

The project has been hailed as a conservation success story, but many local people in the Trentino-South Tyrol region fear that the bears are dangerous to humans and resent their raids on orchards and bee hives.

The bears are also known to attack and kill domestic animals such as sheep, goats and even donkeys.

The eight-year-old bear was found dead in March in Val di Non, a valley in Trentino, and an examination of its corpse has shown that it was poisoned. Another bear was found poisoned in the same area in March last year.

Bears are a protected species in Italy and anyone found guilty of killing one risks up to a year in prison.

“Bears do not present a threat at all,” Claudio Grof, who is involved in the bear reintroduction project, told Corriere della Sera newspaper. “The number of bears is perfectly sustainable in Trentino. Unfortunately people fear things that they do not understand.”

Attacks on humans by bears are extremely rare in Europe, although last summer a trail runner was mauled by one while jogging in the woods in the Trentino region.

Wladimir Molinari said the bear chased him, pulled him to the ground and bit him in the face, arms and chest. “At a certain point I heard a sound behind me and there was the bear, following me at a distance of about 10 metres,” the 45-year-old said at the time as he recovered in hospital.

“I did just as you are meant to – I stopped, raised my arms and started gesticulating and shouting. But the bear attacked me and started biting me. My dog tried to drive the bear away, but it was 10 times the size of him,” Mr Molinari said.

“The bear was biting my face. I grabbed his ears and tried to push him away but I wasn’t able to. I was convinced that he was going to kill me with a last blow from his paws but instead he ran off.”

Brown bears were driven almost to extinction in Italy after centuries of trapping, shooting and poaching.

In the late 1990s, 10 bears were introduced from neighbouring Slovenia as part of a European Union-funded project to re-establish the species in Italy.


How do you recognize poison ivy – and how do you get rid of it?

A young poison ivy plant, with each leaf consisting of three leaflets. (Photo: Submitted)

Many of us know poison ivy can leave you with a rash and relentless itch that can last for several weeks. While picking my tomatoes last summer, I encountered the “leaves of three” well hidden from view. Thinking I could beat the blisters, I nursed and battled the brutal itching for a few days, but it worsened. I finally contacted my doctor and got the much-needed relief from the inflammation. Now it is one of the most hated plants on my list.

Toxicodendron radicans is a native plant commonly known as Eastern poison ivy. It is a poisonous native Eastern North American and Asian flowering plant that is well-known for causing urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. This is an itchy, irritating, and sometimes painful rash in most people who touch it. Urushiol is a clear liquid compound in the plant’s sap. All parts of the poison ivy plant contain this oil which causes the allergic reaction.

Learn to recognize poison ivy plants in their various growth patterns. While it is most often encountered as a small ground plant, it also grows as a shrub and vine. The vines turn bright red in fall. Poison ivy is often confused with another native vine that also turns red in fall called Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). But the Virginia creeper has five leaflets, not three. Virginia creeper is not poisonous and is a valuable source of food for birds.

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Poison ivy is abundant in the Rochester area this year. Here’s a refresher on poison ivy basics. Wochit

You may have heard of two other poisonous plants that you are very unlikely to encounter. They are poison oak, Toxicodendron pubescens, and poison sumac Toxicodendron vernix. Poison oak has compound leaves made up of three (or sometimes five) leaflets, and usually grows as a shrub. Poison oak is not listed as a species that grows in Pennsylvania. Poison sumac grows as a tall shrub or small tree, produces leaves with rows of paired leaflets and a single leaflet at the end. It is not related in any way to our common sumacs. You are unlikely to encounter poison sumac unless you are wading through a bog.

The poison ivy plant flowers from May to July. Berries form in summer and are small 1⁄4 inch round white or cream-colored balls drooping from the leaf axils. Poison ivy is thought of as an unwelcome weed for humans but is commonly eaten by many animals. The seeds are consumed by birds. Deer browse on the foliage. Bears and birds eat the berries with no adverse effects. If you have a wooded area where you do not walk or visit, you may want to leave poison ivy for the wildlife. However, I do not recommend having it in your yard or garden.

Poison ivy can take the form of a climbing vine or as a shrub. The most /> (Photo: Provided by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp)

Most poisonings occur during the growing season when the presence of lush foliage increases the chance of contact; but the dormant stems and roots of the vine can cause winter poisoning as well. People vary in their sensitivity to poison ivy, but repeated exposure can lead to increased sensitivity. So it would be a good idea for everyone to avoid this plant. Reaction to contact with the plant can appear within hours of touching the plant or as much as 5 days later. Typically the skin becomes red and swollen with blistering. After a few days, the blisters may become crusty.

Poison ivy is difficult but not impossible to destroy. The biggest challenge lies in the chances of becoming poisoned when trying to remove it. Wear protective clothing whenever you are working near it. Grabbing and pulling are effective means of removal, though they require close contact and will probably need to be repeated for complete control. The vines can be smothered by totally covering them with black plastic for several months. Do not mow the plants as this will throw out bits and pieces of poisonous material over the area. When removing poison ivy, I suggest taking frequent breaks to change clothes and scrub thoroughly with a strong soap. Wash contaminated clothing separately. Bag the plants, roots, and debris in plastic. NEVER try to burn poison ivy out or add to a burn pile. Smoke can and will carry the poison and could damage lung tissue. If you do burn out an area of brush, stay out of the smoke. There may be poison ivy that you don’t see.

When finished working in an area where you had direct contact with poison ivy, immediately take a shower. Wash all clothing and garden tools immediately. Also, your pet may have had contact with poison ivy while walking along weedy paths and wooded areas. If you suspect contact, wash your pet as the urushiol oil will stay on its coat and transfer to humans. Some people believe that if they have been in poison ivy many times and never broken out they are immune.

Poison ivy vines (left and right) flank a Virginia creeper vine (center) on the trunk of a black walnut tree (Photo: Tommy Springer)

FACT: Not necessarily true. Upwards of 90% of people are allergic to urushiol oil. It’s a matter of time and exposure. The more times you are exposed to urushiol, the more likely it is that you will break out with an allergic rash. For the first time sufferer, it generally takes longer for the rash to show up – generally in 7 to 10 days.

Spring is here and work is to be done in the yard and garden. So remember. don’t mess with “leaves of three.”

Kathy Rohrbaugh is a Master Gardener in York County. Penn State Master Gardeners are volunteers for Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact the Master Gardener office at 717-840-7408 or [email protected]

We separate fact from fiction when it comes to treating, spreading and preventing poison ivy rashes with Dr. Carley Fowler, a dermatologist from Dermatology Associates of Knoxville. Andrew Capps


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