By Cara Fernandes
Feeling winter’s thaw and watching plants sprout new green growth is the quintessential springtime experience. But beware. Some plants have incredible defenses to ward off predators, including people. Learning to identify these plants can prevent a painful rash, and make a more enjoyable experience in the outdoors.
Leaves of three? Let it be! The urushiol (you-ROO-she-all) oils in the leaves, roots, and stems of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) are toxic to humans year-round. It is native to New York and is an important food source for a variety of wildlife. White-tailed deer, muskrat, and raccoons eat the leaves of poison ivy, while wild turkeys, crows, and other birds eat the white berries, called drupes. The often-shiny green leaves will turn crimson in autumn. Poison ivy grows in diverse forms: as a vine or free-standing plant, with very small or large leaves, and with toothed or smooth edges.
Often discussed in the same breath as poison ivy, poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is actually much less likely for people to encounter. It only grows in the wet, flooded soil of wooded swamps and peat bogs. All parts of the plant contain the allergenic oil urushiol. To identify, look for a small slender tree with gray bark and large compound leaves, with 7 to 13 leaflets. The leaves are smooth, with small yellow flowers and whitish berries. The good news? Not all sumacs are toxic! If you see a poison sumac look-alike in a dry sunny area, it could be staghorn or smooth sumac, both of which are completely harmless.
Atlantic poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens), which grows in forests south of New Jersey, does not grow on Long Island. Although out of range here, learning the characteristics of this toxic shrub is helpful when travelling the southeastern U.S. Poison oak can look very similar to poison ivy, especially because it always has “leaves of three.” In some plants, the leaves look more rounded and oak-like, while in others, the leaves may look oval and smooth edged. A tell-tale sign of Atlantic poison oak are the fuzzy berries that grow in the late Spring. Poison ivy berries are always smooth.
Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is an invasive plant that was introduced to North America in the early 1900s as an ornamental plant from the Caucasus Mountain region between Asia and Europe. The sap of giant hogweed can cause severe burns and permanent scarring, so it is very important not to touch the plant. It can grow up to 14 feet high with its white flower head growing up to 2.5 feet wide. Please report any sightings of this federally listed noxious weed to the NYS Department of Conservation at email@example.com.
This spring, remember to look for the wonders of the new season… but try not to touch! If you are working in your backyard, make sure to wear proper protective gear such as gloves, long-sleeved clothes, and eye protection. Never burn plants with urushiol oils because the smoke also contains the irritant and can cause dangerous side-effects for you and your neighbors.