What Middle Schoolers Want to Know: “What poisonous plants should I be aware of in Westchester?”

Jimmy, a sixth grader in Mrs. Antonnucci’s class at Somers Middle School asked: “What poisonous plants should I be aware of in Westchester?” This is an important question because some plants should not be eaten while others should not even be touched.

Plants are chemical factories. That is why some of them are good to eat – they offer vitamins as well as calories. However some plant chemicals present problems for our species. It’s not that the plants have it in for us; they are simply trying to protect themselves from disease and predation.

The list of plants which cause harm if eaten is long and includes many garden and house plants. The basic rule we learned as children remains: Never taste any unknown plant. In some cases, only certain parts of a plant are poisonous. For instance never eat the green parts of a potato; they contain solanine, a nerve toxin.

Some poisonous plants you may find at Angle Fly Preserve include: bittersweet, buttercups, wild cherries, elderberry, holly berries, jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapples, mushrooms, pokeweed and wisteria. There is a more extensive list of poisonous plants at www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/poison/poison-plants.shtml.

The roster of plants you wouldn’t want to touch is, thankfully, much shorter. Poison ivy is the most common, growing throughout Angle Fly and Somers. The rhymes “Leaves of three, let it be” and “Hairy vine, no friend of mine” may help you recognize this plant. Poison ivy grows on the sunny edges of forests and along the sides of paths and walkways. It may grow low to the ground or climb a tree and send out long branches that are easily mistaken for the tree’s own. Every part of the plant has an oil that can cause a nasty, blistering rash.

Poison ivy has two relatives, poison oak and poison sumac, which have similar effects. Poison oak resembles poison ivy. Poison sumac is a small shrub with leaves divided into 6-12 leaflets. It has drooping clusters of white berries, not the upright red berries of its innocent (and more common) relative, staghorn sumac. I have never seen poison oak or poison sumac at Angle Fly, but that does not mean they are not there somewhere.

I cannot complete this column without warning about giant hogweed. It looks like a titanic Queen Anne’s lace, growing 6-14 feet tall. Its sap can cause severe skin and eye irritation to the point of blindness. If you think you’ve touched this plant, you should definitely call your doctor. There are many similar-looking plants that are harmless (such as cow parsnip), so check the NY State website at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/72766.html for help in identification.

Believe it or not, giant hogweed was brought to the United States to be used in gardens.

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