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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Don't Smoke the Hobblebush

Throughout the Appalachians and pervasive in the mountains and foothills of the Southeast are three members of the plant family Ericaceae (Heath) that all wilderness travelers should be familiar with. Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Azalea are all known for their evergreen foliage, and showy summer blooms, but also can pose a danger to both humans and animals: all three are toxic.

Rhododendron, also referred to by some locals as "Hobblebush" due to its nebulous branches and roots that make for nightmarish bushwhacking and near-guaranteed turned ankles, blooms in June in the Southern Appalachians and makes for breathtaking swaths of color at destinations such as Roan Mountain, Shining Rock, Linville Gorge, Mount Rogers, Grandfather Mountain and the Smokies. The long, waxy leaves have historically been used as a holistic, topical treatment for sore, inflamed joints.
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Mountain Laurel is the little brother to Rhododendron with smaller branches and leaves and blooms that are said to resemble peppermint candies. Similar to Rhodys, Mountain Laurel bloom in May and June and often grown in large thickets, covering the mountain floor.
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Azalea is commonly used as a landscaping plant, but due to its low need for direct sunlight it also thrives in the understory of Appalachian Mountain Forests. Known for is brilliant spring blooms in various colors ranging from white to yellow, red, orange, pink, and purple azalea is generally even more slight than Mountain Laurel in stature and in leaf size.
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So beyond the pretty pictures and botany lesson, what does this have to do with wilderness adventure? Like I said, all three of these species are TOXIC. And not just sorta toxic - every part of these plants are toxic. In addition to ingestion, the other method of experiencing the toxicity of these plants is by inhaling their smoke. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've seen fire-rings in the Appalachians with half-burnt Rhody, Laurel or Azalea wood left behind (insert obligatory plug for Leave-No-Trace practices). Still not convinced? Ok, time for scare tactics - symptoms include: Salivation, watering of eyes and nose, abdominal pain, loss of energy, depression, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, difficulty breathing, progressive paralysis of arms and legs, coma. So don't smoke the Hobblebush. I rest my case.


6 comments:

  1. Thanks, love this story. Very interesting and informative. Want more like this, thanks Victor

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  2. How about a story about proper hygiene and first aid kit. How to avoid hand to mouth. Where to wash up. Where not to wash up. How to properly dispose of waste etc.

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  3. Go tell aunt Rhody . . . nice article and, of course, terrific photo!

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  4. Wait, your argument for toxicity is that you've seen lots of partially burnt branches? Much stronger argument if you've ever seen a case in an ER. After a decade of working an ER in WNC's premier hiking area, I've never seen (or heard of)a single case of Laurel smoke poisoning.

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