Cow parsnip, water hemlock can cause adverse reactions

Handle with care

Posted: Friday, August 30, 2002

An absence of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac in Alaska does not mean people are out of the woods when it comes to poisonous plants.

Poison water hemlock and cow parsnip top the list of plants to be wary of when venturing outdoors according to Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna.

The hemlock can be fatal if ingested and the cow parsnip, while edible if properly prepared, can result in severe dermatitis caused by increasing one's sensitivity to sunlight.

Other poisonous plants present in Alaska include baneberry, narcissus-flowered anemone, wild sweetpea, nootka lupine, false hellebore and death camas.

Cow parsnip grow to 9 feet with small, white flowers arranged in umbrella-like clusters. Handling the plant can cause sunburn-like reactions because of the chemical furanocoumarin present in the sap and outer hairs.

Also known as wild celery, pushki and cow cabbage, it is best to handle the plant with gloved hands. Found in meadows and open woods from the coast to the mountains from central Alaska down to California, the plant can be eaten raw or cooked as a substitute for celery, but the stems should be peeled before taking internally.

If sunburn symptoms occur after handling cow parsnip, the burn blisters can be treated with aloe vera or vinegar and water. Some Alaskans report suddenly developing reactions after handling the plant safely for years.

Poison water hemlock which is also known as beaver poison, cowbane, poison parsnip and false parsley, grows to 2 to 6 feet tall, with umbrella-like clusters of small white flowers. The plants inhabit marshes, stream banks and moist meadows from the Brooks Range and Northern Yukon to Northeast British Columbia.

Scientifically known as cicuta mackenzieana, water hemlock belongs to a group of cicutas, which have been called "the most violently poisonous plants in the North Temperate Zone," according to "Discovering Wild Plants - Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest," by Janice J. Schofield.

"Just one bite of the rootstock is enough to terminate one's life," the author states. And, children have been known to be poisoned by making whistles from the hollow stems of the plant.

Chumley advises that people "know whatever it is they're about to put in their mouths.

"There are many good references available, such as Schofield's book and 'Flora of South Central Alaska,' by Boyd Shaffer," Chumley said, "and people can always bring a sample to someone who knows what the plant is."

The plant identification service is one provided by the Cooperative Extension located at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road in Soldotna. "Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska," a 91-page booklet, which includes several color photographs, is also available from the extension service for $5. Extension agents can be contacted at 262-5824.

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