Alongside the road in June, you will see multitudes of white clustered flowers that we commonly call "Queen Anne's Lace," but are all of them really this prolific "weed?" Below are descriptions of plants in the Apiaceae family, which look very similar to each other but have some distinguishing characteristics. Although they all appear innocently harmless, one variety described below is poisonous to eat, one is extremely poisonous to your skin when touched, and livestock owners beware - one of these types is poisonous to livestock.
Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrot): Native to Europe, it is a variable biennial plant, usually growing up to 1 m tall and flowering from June to August. The umbels (umbrella-like flower clusters) are pale pink before they open, then bright white and rounded when in full flower, measuring 37 cm wide. Very similar in appearance to the deadly water hemlock, this species is distinguished by a mix of bi-pinnate and tri-pinnate leaves, fine hairs on its stems and leaves, a root that smells like carrots, and occasionally a single dark red flower in its center.
Wild chervil (cow parsley): It is also biennial native to Europe. It grows 3 to 4 feet on average but can grow over 6 feet in height. White flowers have five petals produced in umbels at the top of stems and bloom earlier than Queen Anne's Lace from late May to early July of the second year. Thick, tuberous roots are aggressive and spread rapidly and the taproots can extend over 6 feet deep. It is located in open woods, roadsides, prairies, hay fields, pastures, waste places and disturbed areas. It prefers rich moist soil. Wild chervil competes aggressively for light, water, and nutrients and shades out surrounding vegetation. Birds, water and human activity are responsible for seed movement. It is a host for a virus disease that infects carrots, celery and parsnips.
Giant hogweed - DO NOT TOUCH!: Giant hogweed is a public health hazard that ranks up there higher than poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac in respect to its potential to harm humans. The sap from this plant can cause a severe skin reaction known as photo-dermatitis or photo-sensitivity. After contact (up to 48 hours), where the sap comes in contact with skin, blisters will appear when exposed to sunlight. Contact with the eyes can lead to temporary or permanent blindness. The plant is also invasive and especially does well in disturbed soils and along waterways. Large colonies have been known to form from a single plant, and it takes up to five years to completely get rid of a colony due to re-growth from seeds and roots. One distinguishing feature that separates giant hogweed from these other plants is its size. It may grow to 15 to 20 feet in height. Stems are 1 to 3 inches in diameter, but may reach 4 inches. Stems are marked with dark purplish blotches and raised nodules. Leaf stalks are spotted, hollow and covered with sturdy bristles (most prominent at the base of the stalk). Stems are also covered with hairs but not as prominently as the leaf stalks. Leaves are compound, lobed and deeply incised; they can reach up to 5 feet in width. Numerous white flowers form a flat-topped, umbrella-shaped head up to 2 feet across.
Cow parsnip: The cow parsnip reaches to heights of 5-8 feet (much smaller than giant hogweed). It has the characteristic flower umbels of Apiaceae, but a foot or less in diameter. These may be flat-topped or more rounded, and are always white. The leaves are large, up to 2 feet across, divided into lobes. And where giant hogweed has coarse bristly hairs on its stems and stalks, cow parsnip is covered with finer hairs that give the plant a fuzzy appearance.
Poison hemlock (water hemlock): Common along roadsides, hiking trails, ditches and field borders, poison hemlock can grow to be about 6 to 10 feet tall. It has a main stem with characteristic light red spots and a disagreeable smell. The lower part of the stem is divided into chambers which contain its toxicant. All plant parts are poisonous; however, the seeds contain the highest concentration, and toxic reactions can occur from inhalation. Human deaths have occurred from harvesting and consuming the roots as wild carrots or parsnips. All livestock are susceptible to poison from this plant, although it most commonly occurs in swine. Cattle are less likely to consume the weed, but are least resistant to its toxins and may birth calves with "crooked calf syndrome." General livestock symptoms progress from nervousness, trembling, and in coordination to dilated pupils, weakened heartbeat, and cold ears to coma and death by respiratory failure.
More information on giant hogweed and its look-alikes can be found in the "Giant Hogweed Poisonous Invader of the Northeast" factsheet (www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands-forests-pdf/ghfactnyseagrant.pdf).
The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year.
For more information on the Master Gardener Program, please contact: Betsy Burgeson, master gardener coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension/Chautauqua County, at 664-9502, ext. 204 or Emh92@cornell.edu.