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Battling a dangerous invader: Town to fight poisonous plant

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Commissioner of Public Works Jay Card Jr, left, with Andy Sesenac, plant scientist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, identifying wild parsnip growing in a long patch along Ram Island Road Tuesday.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Commissioner of Public Works Jay Card Jr, left, with Andy Senesac, plant scientist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, identifying wild parsnip growing in a long patch along Ram Island Road Tuesday.

Andy Senesac recognized the culprit immediately, standing about four feet high next to Ram Island Road on Coecles Harbor Tuesday morning.

Mr. Senesac, a plant scientist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, dug out a tall, slender, green plant, known as wild parsnip, in a weedy patch among buzzing bees near Cobbetts Lane. The toxic plant, also known as poisonous parsnip, had found a home in a stretch of about 200 yard along the road.

“This is the first I’ve seen of it on Long Island,” Mr. Senesac said, adding that wild parsnip has become a serious problem in upstate New York and New England.

The highly aggressive invasive plant is also highly dangerous. The plant’s sap can cause painful rashes that include blistering so severe that scarring can occur on humans and animals that can last anywhere from months to years.

According to the New York Department of Conservation, the sap’s toxins can raise a blister within 48 hours and if the sap contacts eyes, it can cause blindness.

Mr. Senesac said that Shelter Island is fortunate to have identified wild parsnip in its early stages here.

“If that had happened to mile-a-minute we wouldn’t have a problem,” he said, speaking about the invasive species that overwhelms any landscape it touches.

Commissioner of Public Works Jay Card Jr., who invited Mr. Senesac out to investigate Tuesday, said last week that he thought the invasive plant arrived with Superstorm Sandy. He noted that the area along Ram Island Road had been turned into a “debris field” by the storm blowing through in October 2012. Mr. Senesac said the commissioner’s analysis was most likely correct.

Mr. Card said his main concern was not just the patches of wild parsnip spotted along the harbor, but it had been seen on the other side of Ram Island Road in small wetlands near a residence.

“That scares me, “Mr. Card said. If the plant spreads from there “it could go right through the Island,” he added.

The town is taking action to eradicate the plant on its property, Mr. Card said, and has contacted the residents near the wetlands, and their landscape contractor, to get rid of any traces of wild parsnip.

The best method of stopping wild parsnip now is cutting off the stem below the flowers, Mr. Senesac. He suggested wearing gloves and a “Vytek suit,” a disposable garment that covers the entire body.

The plant is part of the carrot family, the scientist said, and can grow up to six feet tall. It looks something like Queen Anne’s Lace, but instead of white flowers its blossoms are yellowish green.

“A gold star should go to whoever found this,” Mr. Senesac said.

That would be Greg Toner of Gardiners Bay Drive, who first identified the plant last week and raised the alarm to town officials and the Reporter.