Category Archives: Lawn & Garden

Virginia Master Naturalist chapter publishes guide to the state’s poisonous plants

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Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of the poisonous plants highlighted in the new guidebook. Photo by Brenda Clements Jones, Old Rag Chapter, Virginia Master Naturalists.

Just in time for the summer months when more people venture into the outdoors — and come into contact with poison ivy and other plants that are best avoided — there is a new reference guide to some of Virginia’s poisonous plants.

The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“This project is the first of its kind in a couple of ways. It’s the first publication of its kind focused on poisonous plants in Virginia, and it was a totally volunteer-driven effort,” said Michelle Prysby, statewide coordinator of the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Extension associate for Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The core group of volunteers who produced the guide was led by Alfred Goossens of the Old Rag Master Naturalists chapter, which serves Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Madison, Orange, and Rappahannock counties. He saw the need for the project owing to the high incidence of contacts with poisonous plants, many of which land people in emergency rooms, a fact he confirmed with the director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center.

Recent reports that the noxious giant hogweed had been spotted in Clarke County, Virginia, which was confirmed by Virginia Tech researchers, has raised additional interest in poisonous plants. Goossens had already planned to include giant hogweed in the publication, as he was familiar with it having grown up in Holland.

Once Goossens enlisted the support of his chapter members, the project took about two years to complete. Volunteers settled on the format, wrote the data sheets for the individual plants, and contributed photographs. There was also a peer-review process to ensure the accuracy of the material.

In addition to Prysby’s support, Senior Extension Agent Adam Downing wrote one of the data sheets and leveraged his connections to help with the publication. “This project will benefit many Virginians by informing them of the realistic hazards with our key poisonous plants,” he said. “We don’t want to cause alarm, but do want people to be able to enjoy the outdoors by being better informed of a few plants to notice and treat appropriately.”

In order to ensure that people remain aware of which plants to watch for, Goossens is also working with Master Naturalist chapters across the state on a second edition of the guide that will include additional poisonous species.

“Now it’s a Virginia project. It changed from just the Piedmont to all of Virginia because people all over the state need this info,” Goossens said.

“The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia,” publication number CNRE-13NP, is available as a downloadable pdf file at the Virginia Cooperative Extension website (ext.vt.edu). For more information on the project, contact the team at socratesormn@gmail.com.

– Written by Krista Timney

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Virginia Tech scientists who identified dangerous Giant Hogweed in Clarke County hopeful that it will be contained

Corey Childs and Giant Hogweed

Corey Childs, an Extension agent housed in Warren County in the northern Shenandoah Valley, visited the Clarke County site Monday to collect Giant Hogweed samples for the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech researchers who helped identify the dangerous Giant Hogweed plants in Clarke County, Virginia, want residents to stay on the lookout for the plant with toxic sap that can cause severe burns — but also stressed that the weeds are believed to have been planted intentionally decades ago and haven’t spread in the years since.

“It’s a dangerous plant but I’m not overly concerned about it. This seems to be an isolated incident,” said Virginia Tech’s Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist.

Giant Hogweed is a Tier 1 Noxious Weed in Virginia and should be reported to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Prior to last week it had not been confirmed in the state. Flessner worked with Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, and Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Mark Sutphin to identify the plant last week.

Property owners who think they spot Giant Hogweed should not panic, Metzgar said. He stressed that Giant Hogweed, with its white, umbrella-shaped-flower clusters, looks very similar in appearance to cow parsnip, a plant that’s widespread and native to Virginia. Giant Hogweed can grow to be up to 14 feet tall while cow parsnip is generally shorter.

Cow parsnip can also cause a mild skin rash but isn’t nearly as dangerous as Giant Hogweed.

Anyone who suspects they have found Giant Hogweed should take photos, check online to compare the plant to photos, and then contact a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

No one should mow or use a weed trimmer to remove either Giant Hogweed or cow parsnip without wearing proper covering and safety gear, Flessner said.

Giant Hogweed is found in a number of other states, primarily to the north of Virginia.

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Scientists determine key factors of honeybee decline

Though a contributing factor, farmer-applied pesticides are not the primary cause of honeybee colony loss in Virginia, according to Virginia Tech scientists Richard Fell and Carlyle Brewster.bees

The scientists recently took wax, pollen, and bee samples from more than 110 hives across the state and have analyzed about half of them for pesticide residues.

“We did not find excessive amounts of agricultural pesticides in the hives, but we did find a significant amount of beekeeper-applied miticide,” said Fell, professor emeritus of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Intended to kill the invasive, parasitic varroa mite, miticides can also be damaging to bees. Fell urged beekeepers to sample their colonies to determine mite infestation levels before treating. If treatment is necessary, beekeepers should use a miticide that does not cause residue problems, such as formic acid.

As more information emerges on the spread of the Zika virus, Fell also encouraged the public to be mindful that mosquito pesticides are toxic to honeybees and should only be applied when absolutely necessary.

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Exploring genetics to combat malaria and Zika

The Zika virus has quickly become a major health threat, and researchers at Virginia Tech are looking for ways to curtail its spread.

Fralin Life Science Institute’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group team members, from left: Zhijian “Jake” Tu, professor of biochemistry; Brantley Hall, biochemistry graduate student; Atashi Sharma, entomology graduate student; and Igor Sharakhov, associate professor of entomology

Fralin Life Science Institute’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group team members, from left: Zhijian “Jake” Tu, professor of biochemistry; Brantley Hall, biochemistry graduate student; Atashi Sharma, entomology graduate student; and Igor Sharakhov, associate professor of entomology

The virus, which is primarily spread to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito, has been passed on to a growing number of Americans since early 2016, and the World Health Organization has declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Biochemist Zhijian “Jake”  Tu is one of several Virginia Tech researchers zeroing in on the Zika virus. Tu is studying genes that turn biting female mosquitoes into males, and he is exploring genetic strategies to stop the transmission of the Zika virus by reducing the number of female mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes do not bite and are harmless to humans, while female mosquitoes bite humans to get the blood they need for egg production.

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Horticulture program in Virginia Beach reaches over 6,200 students

In Virginia Beach, raising awareness in public schools about the importance of environmental sustainability is a city goal. With nearly 68,000 school-age children in Virginia Beach Public Schools and only one horticulture class offered in Virginia Beach Public Schools and one college Horticulture program regionally, it’s impossible to provide sustainable horticulture education to every student.

Virginia Beach Cooperative Extension sought to fill some of that gap, through five events that succeeded in reaching over 6,200 students.

First and second graders in public schools throughout Virginia Beach participated in Ready, Set, Grow, which taught the importance of plants and how they grow.

Junior Master Gardener Camp taught environmental awareness to underserved youth through Parks and Recreation’s Rehabilitation Program.

Farm Days, sponsored by the Virginia Dare Soil and Water Conservation District, taught students about beneficial insects and habitat preservation.

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