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Cowhage, cowage, cowitch – how to identify this poisonous plant and diagnose/treat poisoning.

Cowhage flowers and seed pods

Cowhage, cowage, cowitch
Mucuna pruritum  (Mucuna pruriens)
Leguminosae (Fabaceae) Family

Description: Cowhage, also known as velvet bean or cowitch, is a vine-like plant that is known for its ability to cause extreme itchiness.  The plant is a climbing shrub with oval leaflets in groups of three growing off of short 2-3 millimeter long stems.  Often the leaves are grooved with pointy tips.  When young, Cowitch has hairy spikes which almost completely disappear when the plant reaches maturity.   Its flowers are typically dull purplish or lavender in color but can be white with long sepals. The seeds are enclosed in brown, hairy pods each holding up to seven seeds.

Seed pods, leaveCowhage (velvet bean) branch and flowerss, and flowers contain loose, orange hairs.  Contact with the seed pods and flowers causes the most irritation and can cause blindness if in the eyes. If contact occurs, do not wash with water (which only dilutes the poison) and do not scratch (which spreads the poison).  Apply moist tobacco or cow dung to help stop the itching.

Habitat and Distribution: Tropical areas and the United States.

Other Uses: Cowhage is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and as a treatment for snakebites.  The seeds have antidepressant properties.

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