8 Seemingly Harmless Plants That Can Kill or Maim You

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iStock

Though most of us know we shouldn't make meals out of strange plants we come across in the wilderness, we probably wouldn't think twice about touching those with shiny fruit and appealing colors, assuming them to be as safe as they are beautiful. But there are many trees, flowers, and berries that can cause great bodily harm through mere contact—agonizingly itchy rashes, respiratory issues, temporary blindness, and even total organ failure. While some fatal flora have to get inside your body to kill you, others are so dangerous that you probably shouldn’t even stand next to them. Here are some of the most notorious.

1. MANCHINEEL TREE

manchineel tree with fruit
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The manchineel, or Hippomane mancinella, is a relative of the poinsettia and holds the Guinness World Record for “most dangerous tree.” Pretty much every part of this plantwhich is native to Florida, as well as parts of the Caribbean and Central and South Americais out to get you: Its fruits are known in Spanish as manzanilla de la muerte, or “little apple of death,” and its sap, once used to poison arrows, contains the toxin phorbol, a carcinogen. Contact with the sap causes a blistering, painful rash that can last for weeks, which means you don't want to stand under the tree in a storm; raindrops can pick up the sap and drop it onto your unprotected skin. You shouldn't try to destroy the manchineel, either—inhaling smoke from burning its leaves can lead to respiratory issues or even temporary blindness. According to the Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, “interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal.”

2. ROSARY PEA

rosary pea
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The rosary pea (Abrus precatorius), also known as crab’s eye or jumbie bead, is a perennial climbing vine whose small seeds are astonishingly deadly: They contain a toxic protein called abrin that is so poisonous, a single seed can kill you within 36 hours. In the tropical regions where they're found, rosary peas are also used to make jewelry, because nothing says “pretty necklace” like possible death.

The good news is that simply handling a rosary pea seed won’t be fatal; the hard coating surrounding the seeds, which are usually bright orange or red with a black spot, needs to be broken for poisoning to occur by inhalation or absorption. You’ll even survive swallowing one. Chew it, however, and you’re in for a fun ride of vomiting, liver failure, and death. The rosary pea’s most common victims are children and, well, jewelry makers: Prick a finger while drilling a hole in the small seed, and that necklace will be your last.

3. GYMPIE-GYMPIE

Don't let its cutesy name or heart-shaped foliage fool you: The gympie-gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) is not to be trifled with. The leaves and fruits of this poisonous nettle, native to Australia, Indonesia, and the Moluccas, are covered with hollow stinging “hairs” shaped like hypodermic needles that are notoriously difficult to remove from skin. Moroidin, the neurotoxin found in the gympie-gympie plant, causes painful itching so excruciating that it’s been known to drive humans mad with agony. Simply breathing near the plant can cause nosebleeds and rashes due to the inhalation of shed needles.

“The first thing you’ll feel is a really intense burning sensation and this grows over the next half hour, becoming more and more painful,” virologist Mike Leahy describes in a video in which he intentionally stings himself with the gympie-gympie. “Shortly after this, your joints may ache, and you might get swelling under your armpits, and that can be almost as painful as the original sting. In severe cases, this can lead to shock, and even death. And if you don’t remove all the hairs, they can keep releasing the torturous toxins for up to a year.”

Entomologist and ecologist Marina Hurley describes coming in contact with a plant—which she did many times—as “being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” And even with repeated exposure, your system never adapts; symptoms only get worse over time. The pain is so bad that during WWII, an Australian army officer reputedly killed himself after realizing he had accidentally used the plant’s leaves as toilet paper.

It's also worth noting that age doesn't diminish the danger: Dry samples, preserved for decades, still retain their stinging abilities.

4. WOLFSBANE

wolfsbane flowers
Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Aconite (Aconitum napellus), more commonly known as wolfsbane, is a flowering perennial that grows in mountain meadows in the Northern Hemisphere. Like the manchineel tree, it has historically been used to poison arrowheads for hunting. Aconite contains large quantities of pseudaconitine, a toxin that can paralyze an animal as large as a whale, allowing it to be brought down by hunters.

Like the manchineel tree, wolfsbane causes its fair share of accidental deaths. In 2014, a gardener in Hampshire, England, was rushed to the hospital after handling the plant without protective clothing. The toxin entered his blood, causing multiple organ failure, and within five days, he was dead. Chelsea Physic Garden representative Tom Wells calls wolfsbane one of the most dangerous plants found in Britain’s gardens: “The roots are where the highest level of poison is found, although it is still found in the flower. If there were cuts on his hand, it would enter his bloodstream and affect his heart very quickly,” causing arrhythmia or paralysis.

5. BUNYA PINE

Bunya Pine Cone
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The Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) kills with an even more brutal touch, though at least it's not intentionally trying to murder people. Growing up to 130 feet tall in the rainforests and mountains of Australia, the ancient pine (dating back 350 million years) produces massive, watermelon-sized cones weighing up to 22 pounds … which it then drops on unsuspecting victims below.

“These huge pine cones have the capacity to be lethal if they were to fall on someone passing underneath from such a large height,” Baw Baw Shire Council Mayor Diane Blackwood said in 2012, when a Bunya pine planted by a restaurant troubled local residents. According to The Conversation, many councils rope off areas by the pines or erect warning signs during “cone season.” If you’re ever in Australia between December and March, watch your head.

6. WHITE SNAKEROOT

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a herbaceous perennial native to eastern and central North America that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of European settlers in the 19th century. Consumed by cows and other livestock, the plant's leaves and stems contain a toxin called tremetol that was passed on to humans through the animals' milk. This “milk sickness” manifests as vomiting, tremors, liver failure, constipation, delirium, and often death—of both humans and calves who drank the tainted milk. Perhaps the most famous victim of white snakeroot was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of President Abraham Lincoln. Modern animal husbandry practices have mostly made milk sickness a thing of the past; the plant is cleared so animals can't graze on it.

7. OLEANDER

Oleander (Nerium oleander) is widely cultivated and flourishes in subtropical and mild oceanic climates. The flowering evergreen shrub is prized by gardeners and usually grows to 6 to 12 feet tall. It’s also chock full of toxins. Cardiac glycosides called oleandrin and neriine are found in oleander’s flowers, leaves, roots, and fruit, and while similar compounds are used to treat heart failure by helping the muscle to pump blood, oleander can also stop your heart. (Additional symptoms include skin rashes, visual disturbances like blurred vision and halos, and bloody diarrhea.) The good news is that you’ll likely vomit immediately after ingesting the plant, giving you a second chance at life. Those with hardy stomachs, beware.

8. GIANT HOGWEED

giant hogweed against blue sky
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The invasive giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) grows all over the world, from Europe to Australia, and its corrosive sap contains the phototoxin furocoumarin. Touching the plant followed by any exposure to ultraviolet light causes a reaction called phytophotodermatitis, a rash so severe it is often mistaken for chemical burns. It can also cause permanent blindness if the photosensitive chemicals come in contact with your eyes. The giant hogweed's effects are insidiously long-lasting: Blisters from the rashes and third-degree burns it inflicts can take months to heal, and the affected area may remain photosensitive for years after exposure.

How to Watch Flowers Bloom Around the World From Home

Win McNamee, Getty Images
Win McNamee, Getty Images

Events around the world have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but spring is progressing as scheduled. If you're not lucky enough to see flowers blooming from your window or on safe walks outdoors, you can still watch them from your home.

Web cameras installed around the world are recording flower blooms in real time for the internet to see. Botanical events that would attract huge crowds in a typical year can now be viewed in solitude. If you're missing the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., you can tune into the Bloom Cam, which provides a live look at the National Mall's Tidal Basin as it bursts into color.

The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is closed to the public, but its annual orchid show has been reimagined as a virtual tour. In the video below, senior orchid curator Marc Hachadourian takes viewers through the living exhibit and shares facts about how it was made.

Virtual flower watching is also an opportunity to see blooms on the other side of the globe. Japan's famous sakura trees are now accessible through livestreams.

Your digital nature tours don't need to end with the spring flower blooms. Here are five national parks you can explore online.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Beyond Tiger King: 10 Fascinating Animal Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
A scene from Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018).
Markham Street Films

By now, you've probably already binged Netflix's bewilderingly bonkers docuseries Tiger King (2020). If you're ready to dive deeper into the animal kingdom, there are plenty more documentaries out there. From wildcats to whales, these 10 films will take you on a cinematic adventure around the world, introducing you to captivating creatures and the people who love them.

1. The Tigers of Scotland (2017)

The Tigers of Scotland (2017) brings viewers as up close and personal as possible with a small but mighty feline: the Scottish wildcat. The film delves into the efforts to conserve the disappearing Highland tiger, as well as the history and mythology surrounding the UK’s only “big cat.”

Watch it: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes

2. Ghost of The Mountains (2017)

This 2017 Disneynature documentary will transport you to the world’s highest plateau in search of a family of snow leopards. These cats are famously tough to find, so Ghost of the Mountains offers viewers behind-the-scenes footage of what it’s like to track the elusive beasts.

Watch it: Netflix, Google Play, Youtube

3. Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (2018)

This delightful documentary takes you deep into the competitive cat show circuit. Both charming and at times cutthroat, the film brings viewers on a journey to see which of the many cool cats and kittens will be crowned Canada's top cat.

Watch it: Netflix

4. Kingdom of the White Wolf (2019)

Follow along as a National Geographic explorer and photographer embeds with a white wolf pack in the high Arctic. These wild wolves aren't used to seeing people, giving the filmmakers—and audience—an intimate window into the pack's daily lives and familial bonds. In addition to showcasing captivating footage of the animals, the three-part docuseries also features sweeping views of the starkly beautiful Ellesmere Island.

Watch it: Disney+, YouTube TV

5. Dogs (2018)

This docuseries, which highlights various dogs and their humans from around the world, celebrates the bond between people and their pups. But it’s more than just a montage of feel-good moments about humankind’s best friend: Each episode tells a broader tale about the human condition, crafting an emotional narrative that pulls at the heartstrings like a puppy tugging on a toy.

Watch it: Netflix

6. Dancing with the Birds (2019)

These birds will put your dad moves to shame. Watch the male avian performers shimmy, shake, and flash their feathers while attempting to woo their female mates. The documentary, narrated by Stephen Fry, offers a colorful look at the wonderfully wacky world of bird mating rituals.

Watch it: Netflix

7. Honeyland (2019)

This documentary follows Hatidze Muratova, one of the last wild beekeepers in a remote village in North Macedonia. She lives with her ailing mother, nurturing a traditional way of beekeeping passed down through the generations and striking a balance between making a living and maintaining ecological balance. But everything changes when a nomadic family settles nearby, threatening Muratova’s way of life. The resulting story is both sweet and stinging.

Watch it: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

8. Virunga (2014)

This 2014 documentary highlights the park rangers fighting to protect the Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. As poaching and oil exploration threaten the park, the rangers and conservationists risk their lives to guard the rare creatures that inhabit it.

Watch it: Netflix

9. Harry & Snowman (2016)

In the 1950s, Harry deLayer bought Snowman, a run-down plow horse destined for slaughter, for just $80 at an auction. Within months, the two were taking the show jumping circuit by storm, launching both horse and rider to new heights. This documentary tells the story of the friendship the two developed, and chronicles their lives both in and out of the competitive spotlight.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Whale and the Raven (2019)

The waters around Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest are a haven for whales, who feed and find refuge in the quiet channels. With stunning visuals, this documentary highlights the tension of a community’s push to protect its wild places against the pressures of the ever-encroaching natural gas industry.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

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