August 2015

Touch me? Touch me not!

Marla Mertz, Marion County Naturalist

Lots of questions, facial expressions and body language often gets expressed when considering a trek to the woods. We have probably given deep thought if the rewards would outweigh possible blistering, itching, and painful rashes. Spring, summer, and fall are great times to be in the woods. Spring brings those awesome morels and pheasant-back mushrooms that many people begin thinking about in the dead of winter. Summer brings a multitude of berries. Fall brings more fruits, nuts, roots, and fungus. The diversity of wildlife and serene areas that Iowa woodlands offer should override the fear.

Iowans are pretty fortunate. Iowa has just a small handful of poisonous and / or bothersome types of plants. People living in warmer climates must consider numerous things before enjoying their own backyard. How well do you know your plants that surround us each and every day?

Poison Ivy - leaves of three, let them be!

Poison ivy is probably the most dreaded plant found along and within woodlands, roadside ditches, and disturbed areas. The three-leaved plant can somewhat be a chameleon in its growth. It can be light green, dark green, reddish tinted, a single plant or groups of plants, a shrub, and a vine. Vines growing up the trees can be thick and woody in appearance and the leaves can be mistaken for the canopy of the tree.

There are three leaves attached to each stem and each leaf is pointed. The plant blooms in spring and berries begin to appear in summer and into the winter. Birds, rabbits, white-tailed deer, turkey, and other animals graze and utilize the berries as food. Hmmm, maybe that’s one way the seeds spread so readily. It is not the only plant that has ‘leaves of three.’ Young boxelders and even the blackberry and raspberry can be mistaken for poison ivy. The leaves of the poison ivy alternate along the stem, are smooth and hairy and will never bear thorns. Some can recognize the plant by noting that one leaf of the three resembles a mitten.

Poison Oak

Not a lot to say about this plant in Iowa, other than it has not ever been recorded as growing in Iowa.

Virginia Creeper - leaves of five, let them thrive!

Virginia creeper is a common vining plant and is found everywhere that poison ivy can be found. It can be high-climbing or trailing and will grow in shade or sun. Leaves are green, but new growth can be tinted in red. In the fall, all the leaves turn to a deep red or purple color. The berries of this plant are also eaten by white-tailed deer, birds, rabbits, turkeys, mice, and many others. The fruits of Virginia creeper are poisonous to humans. This plant is commonly confused with poison ivy at first glance and sometimes mistaken for the poison oak. Leaves of three, let them be...leaves of five let them thrive.

Stinging Nettles

Unless you have had a personal encounter with stinging nettles, they are probably the most overlooked as an ‘ouchy’ plant. Nettles are dark green with a straight stem and green flower clusters. It can be 2 to 4 feet in height. If you question the nettle plant of its surety, it is not advised to give it a good swipe with your hand. Although, the stinging rash will wear away, it is not a pleasant one. Stinging nettles produce Vitamin A and was gathered in the spring and early summer as first foods. Hard to believe that a plant that requires gloves to handle, lose their stinging properties when boiled. Some pretty good home recipes have been created with this unlikely, but delectable food. Some may know this plant as itch-weed.

Wild Parsnip

Ouch! How did I get burned! Wild Parsnip seems to be showing up more and more. You will find it in open habitat, especially in roadside ditches. This is a plant that sends up a single flower stalk that holds hundreds of yellow flowers in flat-topped, umbrella like clusters called umbels. The sap or juice, with the help of ultraviolet light, produces sun-induced burns commonly referred to as phyto-photo-dermatitis. It may cause a rash or blistering, along with discoloration of the skin. Parsnip burns show up where the juice from a leaf or stem dragged across your skin before the exposure of the sun. The burning feeling may go away in a day or two, but could be severe enough to leave tell-tale signs of your past experience with this alien invader.

Giant Ragweed

Growing up on the farm, we called this plant horseweed. Little did I know that this was the plant that caused my father and brother (and webmaster) to sneeze and have a headful of discomfort every late summer. Hay fever and allergies are a common result of the wind-born pollen. A member of the sunflower family, this widespread flowering plant has adapted to the fertile agricultural land of the Midwest. It is an annual plant that can be 3-12’ tall. Other common names are bloodweed, buffalo weed, and great ragweed.

Many lessons are taught and learned when trying to adapt a landscape in areas that have been or are disturbed. Most plants, desired or undesired, can appear at any given time, whether it be your yard, flowerbed, or around outbuildings. Most seeds are distributed through self-propagation, wildlife passing seeds after digestion, wind or seeds can sit in the soil for decades waiting for the soil to be disturbed to allow new growth. Planting good desirable plants may eventually out compete the unwanted ones, and consistent mowing can lesson growth. It has been proven, many a time, that Mother Nature does not like bare earth and she will provide plant growth quickly to protect it. Burning areas with poison ivy and other plants that have oils and juices can quickly fill the air with toxins and can create unnecessary exposures to anyone who may be close by.

View the "Blisters, itching, and sneezing" album in Google Photos!

Knowledge of plants, and understanding their purpose, and proper dress in the out-of-doors is the difference between enjoying ‘Your Big Backyard’ and creating good memories than avoiding it, altogether.

Links for more learning: