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Wild parsnip. Photo: Amy Ivy
Wild parsnip. Photo: Amy Ivy

Beautiful flowers come with a "don't touch" warning

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Wildflowers are putting on their midsummer show. Roadsides are especially lovely this time of year, with black-eyed susans mixing in among the day lilies and queen anne's lace. But some should come with a big sign "do not touch" around their stems. Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy has a short list of noxious plants. She tells Martha Foley that tops on the list just now is wild parsnip.

And she has reminders about the vegetable garden: check your garlic!

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Martha Foley
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Roadside wildflowers are in full bloom at this time of year. They include black-eyed susans and queen anne’s lace as well as some more dangerous flowers.

Wild parsnip is a problematic plant that has been flourishing alongside roads in the area. The flowers on this plant resemble yellow queen anne’s lace. “It has that same kind of flower head, especially from the car,” said Amy Ivy, horticulturist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. “I’ve known people who have made bouquets of it, which is really, really not good.”

Ivy explained that this particular flower causes a serious skin reaction. If juice of the plant makes contact with skin, it diminishes the skin’s ability to filter out ultraviolet. Therefore, when skin with plant juice on it is exposed to sunlight, it gets ultraviolet radiation. “So it’s usually when you’re out walking, or weed-whacking is a classic way people get exposed. Then it really sprays on you and you’re still out there working,” said Ivy. “It causes these terrible, deep blisters and scarring, and it takes a long time to get over. It doesn’t itch the way poison ivy itches and the blisters are much larger and more watery-looking than poison ivy.”

Ivy said that the blisters ache rather than itch and leave blackened scars. She said, “Whole highway crews have been laid up when they’ve been weed-whacking without their shirts on and so their whole backs get it. So you really, really need to be careful of this one.” Ivy added that wild parsnip is related to queen anne’s lace and dill and that it is not the same as cow parsnip.

Wild parsnip acts as a biennial. In its first year, the plant is a rosette of leaves low to the ground. “To me, the leaves look like celery leaves,” said Ivy. In its second year, the plant puts up flower stalks and then dies. Frequent mowing helps to eradicate the plant, but Ivy says that mowers need to protect themselves from the plant juice.

Poison ivy is another toxic plant. “It’s really a problem any time of the year, but I always think about it around the fourth of July because people really tend to get out and picnic and play horseshoes and mess around in meadows that maybe they haven’t been playing around in much,” said Ivy. “Everybody in the North Country should be able to identify poison ivy.”

According to Ivy, poison ivy is easy to identify once you know what to look for, but it is variable and difficult to describe definitively. “The newer growth is quite red and shiny, and then the older growth still has that shininess. The leaflets tend to be different shapes.” Ivy says that the old motto, “Leaves of three, let them be” is worth following. Though there are harmless three-leaved plants, when in doubt it is safer to avoid them. Ivy encouraged people to learn how to identify this common plant.

Poison ivy frequently appears in hedgerows and creeps out into meadows. Ivy cautioned against wearing flip-flops on walks through meadows and said, “Regular mowing will keep it down, but it will still be there on the edges.” Ivy said that people display a spectrum of symptoms when exposed to poison ivy, and to be careful about using home remedies. “Sometimes those home remedies can hurt your skin more than the poison ivy does. So do use some common sense with some of those remedies out there,” concluded Ivy.

Ivy also said gave an update on home gardens and said, “Everyone who grows garlic should definitely be taking a very close look.” Her husband harvested his garlic last weekend, and Ivy plans to harvest her own garlic this coming weekend. Ivy says that knowing when to harvest garlic is both an art and a science and said, “Some people will do it based on the leaves, and you wait for about half of the leaves to turn brown.”

If the leaves are allowed to go entirely brown, the garlic will not have a tight head and won’t store well. Ivy said that gardeners can cut the garlic in half horizontally and examine the cross-section of the cloves to see how tightly packed they are. If the cloves are loose, then the garlic should be given more time to fill out.

“Especially this year with the crazy weather, the leaves may be looking browner than the clove is mature or vice versa. It’s just that everything is so topsy-turvy these days. But the leaves are your first indicator, and when in doubt, I would harvest on the earlier side than on the later side,” said Ivy.

When it comes to planting, gardeners have begun to plant swiss chard, beans, carrots and basil. Ivy says that it could also be a good time to plant some quick annuals.

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