garden · herbal · nomadique · wild foods

Poison Partners

Poison Partners

We’re still a long way off from any sign of new, green growth outdoors up here in Wentworth-Nord but I can see that pretty much everywhere else things are a bit different.

On this day I’m dreaming of my poison pasture that I established last season. Poison pasture? Yes, I made a portion of my garden home to both toxic & remedial herbs. It’s important to value the ecological benefits of all plants, edible or poisonous. They provide food for insect pollinators, carbon sequestration, erosion control, One ecological phenomenon I find most interesting is how in many cases, the poison and the antidote reside very close to one another. I look forward to finding new observations and examples of this symbiotic relationship in the new season.  Jewelweed & Poison Ivy and Nettle & Dock are two strong relationships that are a great examples of finding pain & the cure in the same spot.

Poison Ivy & Jewelweed

Impatiens capensis

Impatiens capensis

Impatiens capensis – Impatience du Cap – Touch-me-nots

Jewelweed as characterised notably by its seed pods; Touch the ripe seed pods and they explode as if spring loaded. As annual plants, they rely on the energetic calisthenics of seed propagation to stay alive. And as weeds, they have no problem taking over shady corners of the yard, garden, patio, and pathways. In herbal medicine we use the aerial parts of the plant, although the flowers are especially lovely.

Bright, light orange trumpets suspended from hollow stems filled with water. Not generally edible, has no discernable flavour other than cooling and slightly bitter. The plant can be decocted, distilled, or pureed or any combination of the 3 to treat many varying types of skin disorders, such as psoriasis, eczema, sun/burn, and contact dermatitis. It is most popular in cream and spray form.

The environment in which Poison Ivy thrives is very similar to that of Jewelweed. Shady lanes, rich but disturbed soil types, good drainage. The sap of the poison ivy contains urushiol, an allergen that causes a painful rash on the skin on contact. The sap of jewelweed helps sooth affected areas, either fresh or diluted. Other Poison Ivy busting plants are :: plantain, grindelia, artemesia.

Stinging Nettle & Yellow or Curly Dock

Urtica dioica – Ortie – Nettle

Rumex crispus – Patience crépue – Dock

“Nettle in, dock, out. Dock rub nettle out.”

Urtica dioica

Nettle is such a great character plant.  It is so nourishing on so many levels of our lives.  One of the premier sources of plant-based iron, Vitamins B1, B2, B3, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Silica, Sodium, and many other essential minerals.  As a tea, is has re-mineralizing, tonic, and adaptogenic properties.  As a pot herb, it can be added to any dish where cooking greens are used.  Nettle must be cooked in order to neutralise the formic acid, which is mostly responsible for the stinging in stinging nettle.

Rumex crispus

Yellow dock is such an unassuming plant in our surroundings, it can be hard to remember that it’s even there.  The mature plants reach from 3 to 4 feet high, filled with ripened seeds that are a delicacy for ducks.  The root, when roasted & brew makes a strong bitter drink that stimulates bile production in the liver.

One of those old wives’ tales that worked out great. Stinging nettle stings because of the hairs on the stem and underside of the leaves. Brushing up against or grasping the plant releases formic acid, causing an itchy, burning rash. Reactions to singing nettle are generally less intense and shorter lived than that of poison ivy. Don’t get me wrong, I am often careless in the garden and get a nice sting the whole way up my arm, a nick on the inside of the wrist, a slap in the face. I also have the silly foresight to be careless in my weeding and leave many dock and nettle plants growing on top of one another. It’s kind of amazing just how quickly the juices from the dock plant neutralise the acid from burning and begin to soothe the rash from the get-go. Other helpful plants that can be found in nettle habitat are :: burdock, plantain, sorrel, mullein.

Rhubarb & Rose


Alkaloids & Tannins

This is a funny section as I ran out of specific plants to identify but in my research I found that this idea also applies to the compounds of alkaloids & tannins. There are many folk remedies that call for “a strong cup of coffee or tea” in the case of treating alkaloid poisoning with a high concentration of tannins. Now, I would not recommend trying this at home but when push comes to shove, it’s good to have tucked into your sleeve.  I’ve only just begun to look into these groups of compounds closely and look forward to reading more in the future.

Alkaloids are ­­­a group of diverse organic compounds that are very common in flowering plants. There are many types of alkaloids present in many plants of many forms and potencies, with over 10,000 alkaloids identified and appearing in nature in varying concentration and accumulation. Some alkaloids like strychnine are extremely toxic while others such as nicotine are intoxicating. The pharmacological properties of alkaloids vary so greatly even within the groups of compound. Many cases of alkaloid poisoning are due to plant misidentification or consumption of the wrong part of the plant rather than attempted dosing.

Tannins are complex polyphenolic compounds and are common in the plant kingdom. Tannins are famous for their ability to turn animal hide into leather.  They also inhibit enzyme activity by forming complexes with proteins.  David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism dedicated an entire chapter to the properties and effects of alkaloids and recommend checking it out if you want to know more about the role of tannins and alkaloids in plant functioning.  Diets high in tannin-rich foods may lead to an eventual decrease in nutrient assimilation leading to deficiencies and certain cancers.  However, there are also certain anticarcinogenic properties to black and green teas, which are naturally high in tannins.


–> This article is not written with the intent to treat or cure acute poisoning.  If you or someone you are with has ingested or been exposed to toxic compounds, contact your Poison Control Centre immediately.





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