What's growing? What's the risk?
This spring and now moving into summer, I have witnessed an increased amount of stinging nettle, thistles and hemlock in the Wakatipu region. Starting to pop up are also Lupins, Foxglove & Elderflower. Nettle and thistles can cause external (and emotional) pain which can be easily treated with first aid or a cuddle. However Hemlock (currently producing a white flower), Lupins and Foxglove are toxic upon consumption so it's best to avoid picking these or allowing children to pick these for indoor floral arrangements, crafts, displays etc. It is fine for children to play around them during your nature programs, and skin contact with them is also fine, yet thorough hand washing protocols must take place after possible contact/exposure. Elderflower has a mild toxicity, so needs to be cooked before consumption, and when the berries appear in the late summer, these too need to be cooked. If you are involved in any way in a nature play/education program or just enjoy taking your children out into nature, please take note of the above around these plants.
Managing the risks
The thought of playing around a known poisonous plant can be enough to cause an internal battle as an educator and even more so as the "person responsible" on any excursion or nature program. Achieving that balance between protection & awareness can be tricky, and judgement often varies from person to person. The first steps to managing the risks around natural but potentially harmful growth at your nature sites is to identify and document new growth through the seasons. Best practice is to record new growth as it is discovered, and perform and document seasonal site sweeps, identifying new growth for the risks and the benefits. The second step is to educate and inform the children of it's presence and location, as and when you find more. By teaching them what it looks like and allowing them to feel trusted to be responsible around a poisonous plant empowers them to manage the risk themselves and they often point it out for other children as and when something is spotted. If the plant has taken over, some site management may need to take place, to remove the plant and prevent further spreading. The third step is to have thorough hygiene practices after play & before consuming any food. A thorough hand wash, towel dry, followed by sanitiser does the trick. The fourth, last and necessary step is to have a procedure in place in the unlikely event that a child does consume a poisonous plant. Often a child will need to consume a lot of a plant to be harmful, but always treat as harmful. You can contact the poisons hotline 0800 POISON (0800 764 766) for 24 hour advice.
What to watch for?
Below there is a useful document developed by Landcare Research NZ which provides an extensive list of plants in NZ that can be harmful to children. Click to download.
Please don't be alarmed or put off by poisonous plants in NZ, when effectively managed using the strategies above the risks become benefits as they provide learning opportunities. Spring and Summer is a wonderful time to observe and explore new growth, so enjoy, use educated judgement and take care.