July 28, 2014

Photo Essay: That Which Doesn't Kill You

There are so many things that can kill you in LA.

And that which doesn't kill you might make you stronger. Then again, it might just make you really really sick.

If you don't die of a broken heart, maybe you'll be attracted to some gorgeous flower or appealing fruit, take a sniff or bite of it, try trimming it into hedges, maybe stick a hotdog on one of the stalks or burning it in a campfire, and BOOM. You're dead. Or blind. Or vomiting and wish you were dead.

We hikers are used to identifying poison oak (which is a major irritant but unlikely to kill us aside from some severe allergy), but there are so many other things out in the wild – and in everyday life – of which we need to be aware.

We are surrounded by perils and toxins, and yet we have no idea how we are jeopardized.

If we get close enough.

Why is it that such beautiful things can kill us, and we don't even know?

Maybe some beauty should only be admired from afar.

Behold the encino, the live oak, the Sherman Oaks; but beware of the red oak.

Likewise, the camphor tree presents major toxicity to humans, with its camphor oils, should they be ingested.

The "Pride of Madeira" (Echium species) may not have caused any human deaths, per se – yet – but it contains alkaloids that could cause irreparable liver damage.

The wax leaf privet... the olive family... commonly used as screens or hedges...

...and are beloved by bees, but would give a human a major tummy ache if consumed.

The Carolina Cherry – of the rose family – actually contains cyanide, like a lot of other common decorative plants, and can be poisonous even if just inhaled.

Boxwood, also a common hedge, may keep evil spirits out, but it can also cause skin irritation and nausea and vomiting.

Euonymous, another common hedge, bears fruit that can damage the liver and kidney...

...and make you hallucinate or die.

The Bearberry Cotoneaster, also a member of the rose family, bears cyanide-rich fruit which attracts children and pets and then kills them on contact.

Likewise, the fruit of the umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola), of the ivy family, causes severe toxicity in household animals, and can swell up everything so bad, it suffocates you.

Not to be confused with the Lantana...

...whose flower clusters evoke the colors of the Spanish flag (and also appear in yellow, purple, and white), and whose berries deliver a lethal dose at 1% of body weight, resulting in death within just a few days of eating.

Dangers come in the form of common ornamental flowers like the azalea...

...and the hydrangea...

...but never so much as with the oleander...

...which has been used as an actual murder weapon.

Some plants and flowers may not be officially listed for their toxicity...

...but that doesn't mean they're safe.

I mean, the Chaste Tree, with its purple flowers and aromatic foliage, won't kill a guy, but it'll stimulate his production of progesterone, decreasing his libido.

On the other hand, all parts of the Angel's Trumpet plant, including its trumpet-shaped flowers, are extremely poisonous and can kill...

...and while it's at it, give you really terrifying hallucinations and delusions.

These aren't remote plants. All of the ones pictured here were along residential sidewalks and on people's front yards. And some of the noxious flowers and fruits (like that of the Blue Crown Passion Flower) look so similar to non-toxic ones, they'd be easy to misidentify.

And not just by adults, but by curious children and hungry pets...

...who find widely-available plants used for landscaping, like the Sago Palm...

...especially tasty.

If we're lucky, there's a visual deterrent, like the spiny spikes of the Century Plant, known more commonly as the agave. If you fall on one of these things while hiking, it will impale you and you will die.

So people plant them in their front yards – maybe to discourage robberies – but often clip the pointy ends for the safety of passers-by. But when pruned, the plant's sap can cause severe skin reactions, so it's probably better if you just stay away (and don't mistake this commonly named "American aloe" for the skin-soothing genus Aloe).

Homeowners plant these things because they're pretty, or drought-tolerant, or provide privacy, shade, and protection from noise and pollution. Some of them are great at controlling erosion. And some of these tremendous specimens are great to look at.

But you can't touch them or taste them. Some should not even be sniffed.

No matter how tempting they might be. No matter how widely accessible (and overplanted) they are. People don't know. Nobody seems to ask.

Perils everywhere.

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