Biologists link climate change to scary garden plants

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Your next exchange with Mother Nature could end up getting under your skin, in the worst way. A hike, a picnic in the park, or tidying up your garden could be life-changing.

A growing number of biologists, and meteorologists are pointing to climate change, and suspect it might responsible for causing some bad plants to get even worse.

Poison ivy, though it has been with us for hundreds of years, seems to be getting “supercharged” by climate change. It is boosting the supply of carbon dioxide, and scientists believe poison ivy and other vines are thriving on the increase.

Giant hogweed seems to be spreading, and more toxic. The sap from this hulking flower can cause third degree burns, Jeff Fridman of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation says, contact with the eyes can be life changing.

“You certainly wouldn’t want to get any kind of hogweed sap in the eye. It does not typically happen, but you want to be protected. Sap in the eye can cause blindness so we want to certainly protect your eyes.”

For those very reasons, Fridman, a field supervisor for DEC and his team wear white Tyvek suits, respirators, and safety glasses when they go out to spray herbicide on the noxious giant hogweed.

While giant hogweed can grow to 14′ high, smaller stalks can turn up in your garden, and News 4 discovered a 5′ hogweed stalk among peonies and daisies outside a home in West Seneca. Just across the street, John Cronenberger pointed out several giant hogweed stalks in a field behind his house, where he has seen young people playing paintball.

“My biggest concern is the proximity that we have to the Burchfield Nature Park over here, along with Buffalo Creek where families bring their kids to play, and splash in the creek,” Cronenberger said. “My fear is that this plant is going to wind up over there someday and I am afraid of the possibilities of somebody really getting hurt.”

Scientists say we are seeing more toxic plants in the northern part of the United States, and believe it’s due to climate change. Greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide, are more plentiful, which researchers say is enabling these invasive plants to spread more readily.

Hogweed lookalikes, such as wild parsnip, are sprouting up in gardens, in fields, along roadsides, and can be nearly as harmful as its bigger cousin, said Sharon Bachman, a community educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“So if you get the sap on your skin and you are exposed for over a half hour, you are going to get a burn–probably a third degree burn. It is going to be like you touched something hot, you are going to see blisters.”

Scientists say poison ivy and other vine plants are thriving the most in the carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere, and News 4 Gardening Expert Sally Cunningham said they are becoming more harmful.

“Showing us how climate was affecting the prevalence and spread of poison ivy–moving it more rapidly northward, and also that the oils are getting, so a reaction would be worse.”

In other words, Cunningham said the evidence indicates the higher carbon dioxide levels seem to be “supercharging” the poison ivy–a vine that can be identified by the three pointed leaves.

The oil in poison ivy, urushiol can stick around for years on clothes, shoes, and tools, and when the ivy is burned, Cunningham said the smoke contains the urushiol and can cause a painful annoying rash. Inhaling the smoke from poison ivy can cause serious lung irritation.

“Many people will break out because they were downwind from a smoky barn fire in the fall, that somebody was burning the trash plants, including poison ivy. So all seasons. This can be a bad actor.”

We might already be seeing signs of vines dominating other vegetation, said Nancy Smith, Executive Director for the Western New York Land Conservancy, “Poison ivy is even more prevalent perhaps for the changes in CO2 levels that are even going to be increasing.”

As Smith walked through the Kenneglen Scenic and Nature Preserve in East Aurora, she pointed out poison ivy and other vines choking off plants, including large mature trees. Many of have been smothered by the sheer weight of the massive vines, and died.

Smith pointed to one dead tree, “This tree’s life span was certainly impacted by having the poison ivy on it.” The poison ivy was still alive, but the tree was dead.

If what the scientists suspect turns out to be true about the effect of climate change, Smith said, the vines are thriving at the expense of plants that are beneficial to our fragile ecosystem, which should concern us all.

“But also there is a huge kind of a battle being waged between invasive plants and native plants. So that is something that the more people spend time in nature, the more they are going to be interested in helping tip that balance towards native plants.”

Earlier this year, 5 children in the United Kingdom suffered burns from Giant Hogweed. Scientists in the UK are calling hogweed “the most dangerous plant in the UK”.

If you are confused by the similarities between the giant hogweed, wild parsnip, cow parsnip, and Queen Ann’s lace, the DEC has a guide, sub-titled, “Do not touch this plant!”

To see a video which details one young lady’s encounter with hogweed, click here or watch below.

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