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Native look-alikes may mislead

July 26, 2011
By HILARY SMITH , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Early detection works. It works for human health professionals responding to a new illness in the body and it works for invasive species managers responding to a new infestation on land or in water.

Your learning about which invasive species are on the move, keeping your eyes open for them and reporting sightings to the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program are some of the best defenses we have to hold the line against invasive species expansion in the Adirondacks. We have a real shot at effectively treating a small infestation of a few plants, but the scale tips out of our favor when a few plants become a few thousand.

Identification is critical to determine whether a harmful invasive or beneficial native is at hand. Some invasive species look nothing like our native species - like European water chestnut, a floating aquatic invasive plant with triangular, toothed leaves and spiny seeds. Others look strikingly similar at first glance - like common reed grass, a wetland grass reaching heights of 14 feet, which has both native and introduced strains. You don't need to be a botanist, entomologist or ichthyologist to tell the difference between most native and invasive plants, insects and fish; simple tips can often help distinguish the invasive from its native look-alike.

Article Photos

Giant hogweed’s stem is green with reddish-purple blotches.
(Photo — Robert Videki, Doronicum Kft.,

Giant hogweed is a noxious, invasive plant making recent headlines. Regional and statewide print, radio, television and online coverage of hogweed and its health hazards prompted hundreds of calls and emails of possible detections. Luckily, most were false alarms confusing giant hogweed with its native look-alike, cow parsnip.

Both giant hogweed and cow parsnip grow to heights of 8 feet or taller, and both have large, white, umbel-shaped flowers and large, compound, deeply lobed leaves. Both grow along forest edges, in floodplains or disturbed areas. But here is the simple tip for identification: giant hogweed has a green stem with dark reddish-purple blotches and prominent coarse white hairs; cow parsnip's stem is entirely green and ridged with fine white hairs.

Another plant grabbing attention along roadsides right now is purple loosestrife. Purple loosestrife's native look-alike is fireweed. Fireweed's bloom is fading now but loosestrife's splash of color is vibrant and visible.

Both plants are found in similar settings, grow to heights of 6 feet and have pink or purple spikes of flowers. A drive-by identification can reveal the invasive from its native look-alike. Look for loosestrife's densely packed spike of flowers. In contrast, fireweed's flower spike is loose and airy. Loosestrife also grows in clusters with multiple branches and flower spikes per plant; fireweed usually has only one flower spike per plant. Upon closer inspection, loosestrife's stem is square and fireweed's stem is round.

Keeping track of these species can seem overwhelming, but we're here to help. Early detections of giant hogweed, purple loosestrife and other invasive species by citizens have led to swift eradication of many infestations. Your reports do make a difference. To learn which species to watch for in the Adirondacks, for help with identification or to report invasive species sightings, contact APIPP at 518-576-2082.

Eye on Invasives is a biweekly column that spotlights a top invader when it is easiest to identify. Hilary Smith directs the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, a partnership program housed at the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy in Keene Valley. Find out more about this award-winning program online at



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