Gardening Tips: August 6, 2014

Poisonous plants
The summer season continues to race by as we enter the month of August. Weather wise, the summer of 2014 has been close to perfect in our region. This is the month when many people from down state, Long Island and New Jersey take their vacations to visit our beautiful Catskill Mountains. Most of us take the weather and scenery we enjoy on a daily basis for granted, but a century ago the cool mountain air provided a welcome relief from cities that had not yet invented air conditioning.
Of course, the forests and fields of the “country” as we referred to Greene County when I was a little kid, growing up in Jersey City, do pose some hazards for the unknowing visitor. Sadly, people do occasionally fall off ledges or cliffs while hiking on trails and others get lost. I believe we have already had two fatalities this season from the area that leads to Kaaterskill Falls near North Lake State campground. This park is the most popular of all state-owned campgrounds and thousands of visitors camp there most weekends.
Lately the local news has been warning everyone about the dangers of a plant that is called “Giant Hogweed.” This plant is not all that uncommon to encounter in recent years, as it spreads across much of the state. I have not seen it in Greene or Ulster county yet, but I would not be surprised to find it there. It is a striking plant, growing eight to 14 feet tall with large, white, compound blossoms, up to two-feet wide that might tempt some people to pick and take home. That’s would be a serious mistake! The hollow stems are two- to four-inches thick, featuring reddish, purple blotches and the leaves, which clasp the stem, may be up to five-feet long. It resembles wild parsnip and cow parsnip, two other common native plants that also have poisonous sap. Good pictures of all these look alikes may be found at http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/40961.html.
The sap of all these plants can cause a severe rash with blisters and can even cause blindness if it gets into eyes. The toxin is aggravated by sun exposure and the rash and blisters are far worse if exposed to sunlight. Giant hogweed is not a native species and for that reason, it has been targeted for special concern by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). For reasons that I do not understand, the DEC, at significant taxpayer expense, sends out SWAT teams to get rid of Giant Hogweed when it is reported. Although it may seem a good idea to attempt to eradicate this noxious weed, it is completely futile, as all knowledgeable biologists acknowledge. I would much rather have the DEC contract with educational agencies, such as Cornell Cooperative Extension, to teach people how to recognize this weed and get rid of it themselves. I have always favored education over eradication. It is surely an easy weed to identify!
By far, more common and a much more serious concern to tourists and locals is poison ivy. This is a ubiquitous weed that everyone should recognize in all its forms. (http://www.wikihow.com/Identify-Poison-Ivy) It grows as a climbing vine up tree trucks and other vertical structures and has a conspicuously hairy stem that allows it to cling to bark. Sometimes the vine gets as thick as my forearm or even thicker. It also grows along the ground, twining through the undergrowth and sometimes even appears to be a small shrub. The shiny, three lobed leaves vary greatly in shape from resembling a three-parted oak leaf, to egg shaped, oval or almost round. It grows in full sun to dense shade and is most common in disturbed sites, such as campgrounds and other places where people congregate. Some people claim to be immune to poison ivy toxin, but no one really is. It can be gently touched and as long as the stem or leaves are not bruised, releasing the poisonous sap, infection is less likely. Once the sap gets on the skin, it can be washed off with strong soap, if this is done within a few minutes of exposure. Unfortunately, if the sap gets on clothing or shoes, it will remain toxic for long periods of time, perhaps a year or more. People often get infected over and over from contaminated gloves or boots or sneakers. Rashes that appear on legs are often caused by crossing one’s legs and resting a sneaker on a bare knee. Pets will sometimes get the sap on their fur as they run through the woods and then transmit it to unsuspecting owners. The dead vines also remain toxic for quite some time. I have gotten it from handling well-seasoned firewood that had the vines on it years ago.
Well, these are only two of the poisonous plants common to New York. Next week I will compile a “top 10” list of risks which tourists and locals may encounter in our beautiful homeland, ranging from poisonous snakes (almost inconsequential) to deer ticks, (major concern).