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Story Last modified at 5:10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ouch! ERNC naturalist shows which plants, insects to avoid

For the Star


Naturalist Ute Olsson identifies a stinging nettle plant during a presentation on stinging plants and insects at the Eagle River Nature Center.
photo by craig keener

Mosquitoes are notorious pests in Alaska, but others like wasps and yellow jackets pack the more worrisome punch, according to Ute Olsson, chief naturalist at the Eagle River Nature Center.

Olsson discussed these, other biting insects, and a number of troublesome plant species at the "Itch, Prickle and Sting" workshop and nature walk at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 23 at the center.

Joining the mosquito are venomous wasps, hornets, bees, and blood-sucking horseflies, categorized into two groups called Hymenoptera and Diptera, Olsson explained. Hymenoptera consist of wasps, bees and other insects with two pairs of wings, while Diptera include flies and other insects with a single pair of wings, she said.

Preventing bug bites and stings can be done by removing nests near dwellings, wearing face screens, and donning insect repellants.

Popular repellants include the pesticide Diethyl-meta- toluamide, or DEET, as well as natural alternatives like citronella and lemon eucalyptus oil. Removing attractants can also prevent unwelcome attention from certain aggressive insects. Yellow jackets and wasps are attracted to typical picnic scents such as the smell of meat and sugar, while flies are lured in by exhaled carbon dioxide, she said.

Removing standing water from properties will limit breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other water-loving insects such as sand flies and midges, Olsson said. Using bug zappers as a deterrent is discouraged because they often kill larger insects which prey on nuisance bugs, she said.

While there is no poison ivy in Alaska, other native plant irritants like cow parsnip and stinging nettles can cause skin rashes, inflammation and considerable pain in some cases, Olsson said.

Cow parsnip is common along trails in the Eagle River valley and looks like giant Queen Anne's lace. It has large, dinner-plate sized leaves and long celery-like stalks, Olsson said. The up to 8-foot-tall plant secretes a chemical which can cause severe irritation when combined with prolonged exposure to the sun. This makes summer hikers especially vulnerable to the plant's effects.

"It is not something you feel right away, it's not like when you walk into a patch of poison ivy or something and pretty soon afterwards you are in pain," Olsson said.

Symptoms include sores and blisters and vary in severity from person to person.

"It really depends individually how sensitive you are," Olsson said. "Some people do end up with scarring from it."

Skin irritation can be avoided by washing the affected area thoroughly with soap and wearing long sleeves and pants to prevent direct contact with the plant. Affected areas can remain sensitive for years, Olsson said.

Thorny plants to watch out for include Devil's Club, which has broad leaves and is often mistaken for cow parsnip. The key difference is a number of spines on the plant's stem, which are absent from cow parsnip stalks.

Following the presentation, Olsson led a short hike and pointed out the hazardous plants and differentiated between several poisonous and edible berry species.

"If it stands straight up, it's poisonous, don't eat it," Olsson said, referring to Alaska's wild berries. "If they hang down like currants or raspberries, they tend to be safe."

Locals braved cold and sometimes rainy conditions to help identify wild plants along the nature trail.

New Anchorage resident Bryan Jorgensen and his wife, Dana, made the drive to Eagle River to learn more of the local flora.

"I'm just trying to figure out what's in the yard," he said. "It's always interesting to learn about new plants."

Bryan Jorgenson, an avid hunter, said he often prepares natural foods, including edible plants at home.

"We're hunter-gatherers from 10,000 years ago," he joked.

The Eagle River Nature Center offers a number of public programs on weekends and select weekdays, most of which are free. For an event calendar, visit them online at

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.