You don’t want to itch for spring
FAIRMONT – With spring will come green plants, some of which give humans contact dermatitis or irritated skin.
There are three main offenders to watch for locally: western poison ivy, nettles and wild parsnip, said Randy Schindle, private land specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.
All three irritate in different ways, he added.
“Poison ivy has a chemical in it; more an allergic reaction,” Schindle said.
It gives a person water blisters and severe itching, but there’s a simple cure.
“Soap and water takes care of it,” Schindle said. “Get to soap as quick as you can.”
Touching poison ivy isn’t the only danger. If you’re trying to get rid of it with fire, watch out.
“Breathe it in when it’s burning and you’ll get a reaction in the lungs,” Schindle said. “Not a good thing.”
Poison ivy is a low vine with three leaves that are usually glossy and turn red in the fall. The berries are white/light green and are eaten by birds. Other than feeding the birds, Schindle didn’t know of any other purpose it serves, but said it was a native plant.
Nettles are also native. Look for a wood stem covered with leaves that have serrated edges, and “a greenish-white spike of flowers on top,” Schindle said.
“It gets pretty tall,” he added. “I’ve seen it over six feet.”
Both kinds of nettles – stinging nettle and wood nettle – have “little hairs” that inject histamine and other chemicals, he said.
“It just burns more than anything,” Schindle said of the reaction. It doesn’t cause water blisters, but the skin might get red.
Ironically, it doesn’t burn indiscriminately.
“It only burns where you don’t have fingerprints,” Schindle said. “You can actually touch it with the pads of your fingers, but [if you touch it] with the backs of your fingers, it’ll burn you.”
The chemicals don’t stand up to boiling water.
“Drop it in boiling water and you have instant spinach,” Schindle said. “I’ve eaten them and they’re quite good.”
Schindle said nettles might be found in health food stores, but he wasn’t sure what it is used for.
Although nettles might made a good substitute for your salad, you don’t want to mistake wild parsnip – and Schindle said it’s easy to do.
“Wild parsnip is in the dill or carrot family,” he said. It’s a wild form of domestic parsnip and looks similar to dill or Golden Alexander, which are beneficial, while wild parsnip is dangerous.
“It will cause very severe blistering and burning,” Schindle said.
Make sure you take note of where wild parsnip grows, because whether you react to it or not depends on when you encounter it.
“Wild parsnip has a photo-chemical reaction that reacts with sunshine,” Schindle said. “If you’re out in the dark, you’re fine.”
Wild parsnip can be a big plant, growing to 6 feet, he said. It has bigger seed than its look-a-likes, and the leaves are different.
Unlike poison ivy and nettles, wild parsnip is not native.
“It’s a very invasive plant,” Schindle warned.
People can help keep it from spreading by being careful when they mow, particularly road ditches.
“It’s biennial, like carrots,” Schindle said.
Biennials die after two years. The first year, wild parsnip will just get leaves. The second year, it will bloom, go to seed and die. When they are mowed while in seed, it spreads the seeds and allows the plants to proliferate.
It’s best to get rid of it before it goes to seed, Schindle said.
“Mow them just when they’re starting to bloom,” he said.
Another way to get rid of all three is herbicide, but check the labels or ask the advice of a plant expert. Schindle said nettles can be pulled by hand, but you must wear gloves.
“Just be sure of your ID before you decide to control them,” Schindle warned. “You might be controlling a beneficial plant.”