The Number One Plant to Avoid Outdoors

September 16th, 2013

By Keith Roumfort, Program Manager, Bridging the Watershed

“Three leaves, let it be.”

“Hairy rope, don’t be a dope.”

Such mnemonic sayings help people avoid one of the concerns for the average hiker: poison ivy. Poison ivy, a North American native that isn’t a true ivy, likes to grow in disturbed areas. Despite its name, it’s not poisonous, but the urushiol oil that lies in
plant gives humans an unforgettable rash.

To avoid that itching experience, it’s a good thing to know how to spot this common plant on outdoor trails.

Look at the edges (margins) of the leaves
Poison ivy has compound leaves, a cluster of three leaflets that form the leaf stemming from a petiole (“leaf stem”). Many other similar plants have compound leaves of three leaflets as well, so to help identify the plant, you can look at the edges or margins of the plant as well as counting leaflets.

Plant leaves are usually symmetrical, a mirrored image on both sides. Poison ivy’s margins on the leaflets can be symmetrical and asymmetrical on the same plant.

poison ivy margins
The margins can be smooth (entire) or jagged (toothed).
poison ivy symmetry


Fall Changes
Throughout fall, clustered berries ripen from green to a pale, light yellow. Often the seed-containing berries are gobbled up by birds before winter sets in. The leaves are deciduous, turning yellow or sometimes red before falling to the ground.
poison ivy berries 1
poison ivy berries 3


The Perennial Hairy ‘Rope’
No matter what the season, but especially during bare winters, the vines are easily visible. The vines may creep over the ground, on walls, and up trees. As the vines mature, they get thicker and covered with dark hairy-like structures that anchor the vine to the surface. Beware as the vines may give you the rash.
hairy rope 1hairy rope 2


Tips to remember if you are exposed:

  • Don’t infect your eyes or mouth as urushiol oil can spread the rash internally.
  • Don’t burn poison ivy because you can inhale the rash-inducing smoke.
  • Wash the exposed skin with plenty of cool water without the water getting to other areas of your body. Warm or hot water can open up your pores to the oil. Be careful in removing exposed clothing and cleaning it.
  • A person with a rash is not contagious. The urushiol oil has already been absorbed into the skin. Only contact with residue oil can spread the rash.
  • If the rash gets worse and/or lasts for a few weeks, see a doctor.

Spending time outdoors can be lots of fun no matter what the activity with just a bit of common sense and precaution. Some people may claim to be immune to poison ivy, but like other forms of immunity, it can be lost. The best way to prevent the itchy surprise after a hike is to be aware of where you are walking and develop sight recognition of poison ivy.

Truly Treemendous Tales from the Field

August 5th, 2013

By Elizabeth Rives, Bridging the Watershed Program Coordinator

Admiring a Majestic American Sycamore at C&O Canal Historical Park

Admiring a Majestic American Sycamore at C&O Canal Historical Park

“Look at that – that tree is tight!” exclaimed a bubbly six-grader from Accokeek Academy while walking to the site for a Bridging the Watershed field study. Fortunately, I’ve hung around enough tweeners and teenagers to know that tight, in teen-speak, means “stylish, cool, having everything together,” according to the web-based Urban Dictionary. The student was admiring the striking white silhouette of an American sycamore tree on the banks of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park at Great Falls Tavern.

At BTW we thrive on those “aha” moments when learning becomes relevant, or “tight,” to a student’s life. We’ve become accustomed to hearing such exclamations over a crayfish, or an especially large and menacing hellgrammite the students have netted in the creek. Sometimes the awe is even over chemistry when a water sample magically turns from dark blue to clear. But it’s not often about a tree. So for me, a devoted tree enthusiast and tree identification teacher, I couldn’t believe my ears when it was a tree that inspired that level of enthusiasm.

Prince William Forest Park Features 15,000 Acres of Trees

Prince William Forest Park Features 15,000 Acres of Trees

And then, to my delight, it happened again the next week at Prince William Forest Park — a park whose main claim to fame is 15,000 acres of trees. All those tree roots soak up pollutants from runoff before the water drains into Quantico Creek, making it one of the most pristine streams in the greater Washington, DC metropolitan region. For BTW students, that means a boundless diversity of insects to study. For one North Stafford High School AP Environmental Science student, however, it sparked an unsolicited and lengthy private discussion with me about non-native trees and their impact on the surrounding ecology! Now that was perhaps as thrilling an “aha” moment for me, the educator, as it was for the student.

Greenbelt Watershed Watchdogs; Faye Austin March 23, 2011 057

Central High School Teacher Faye Austin at Greenbelt Park

Four days later at BTW’s advanced teacher workshop on benthic macroinvertebrates I got my third tree “aha” in three weeks. This time it came from a teacher who, at the end of the workshop, suddenly remembered she knew me from a workshop on tree identification I led the previous summer at, where else?, Prince William Forest Park. To my surprise, amusement, and embarrassment, her face lit up as she shouted, “Oh, you’re the tree lady,” toward the end of my talk on field logistics. Okay, so maybe this one wasn’t so much about trees, but at least she had associated me with trees and remembered that she had taken a workshop to learn how to identify them.

If you’re wondering what my take away was from that flurry of tree “aha” moments, that’s easy: all good things come in trees, er threes.

Potomac Watershed Study Center Phase One Construction in its Infancy

July 26th, 2013

By Karen Miles, Land Use/Facilities Manager

PWSCgeothermalFor anyone not familiar with construction projects, the work going on in preparation for Phase One of the Potomac Watershed Study Center (PWSC) is mind boggling. When we go into any private or commercial building that is already built, all of the ‘invisible’ parts are taken for granted. These include all of the various underground pipes that carry drinking water, septic, electric lines, fire protection water lines, communications lines, storm water culverts and more.

I have never seen so many trenches and holes dug in such a small space! Not only are these underground lines necessary to any project, but these particular ones are different than nearly all that have been laid in the past. They are all a part of our Living Buildings Project that has the potential to actually improve the quality of the environment. If you are reading this blog post, you probably have read about our PWSC project on the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Website, so I won’t go into more detail.

The products that are used in an endeavor such as this must meet stringent guidelines and each item and its parts, plus the manufacturing process toxic impact, must be submitted to the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) for approval prior to using it. This process is new to most architects, engineers, contractors and sub-contractors and government entities, so it can be tedious. As with any new and revolutionary concept, those who sign on in the beginning have to lay the groundwork for all those following in their footsteps.

Many of the building products contain toxins and/or were manufactured thousands of miles from the work site. Man’s footprint on the environment can be reduced drastically by using non-toxic materials that are manufactured within a tight radius of each project. Even the road building aggregates must be tested for conformance to this strict set of standards. The normally used piping that carries water from a water storage tank to the buildings in case of a fire contains ‘red-listed’ chemicals, so an alternative had to be found. High density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes replace the common poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) or metal lines. These pipe sections must be fused with a special piece of equipment that requires training prior to using it. Even the valves that are placed in the lines and things like screws in equipment must be submitted and approved. The concrete recipe that is commonly used for footings and walls contains a very small amount of formaldehyde which aids the curing process. Our concrete subcontractor has agreed to change to chemical content of the pour to conform to the ILFI standards.

This way of doing things is totally new to almost everyone now involved in our project, but as is with most new innovations or standards, will soon become the norm. We hope to be THE PROJECT in the DC metropolitan area and beyond that showcases what can be done when people aim for the moon and actually land on it, metaphorically!

Celebrating Watershed Heroes

July 10th, 2013

[Note: This week we are joining author Jennifer Chambers, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and Blue Water Baltimore, in a blog tour to celebrate watershed heroes and the launch of Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle]

During Scout the Water Bottle’s journey in Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle, written by the educator, Jennifer Chambers, he learns about all the ways in which litter negatively impacts our environment as well as how each individual can make a positive difference. With the mission to connect people to the natural world, sustainable agricultural practices and the cultural heritage of their local watershed through education, stewardship, and advocacy, we at the Alice Ferguson Foundation hope to take the students, teachers, and community members we serve on a similar journey where awareness will lead to action to protect our environment.

TFS 3 We are able to serve the community through three core programs: Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center, which provides outdoor-based experiences for appreciation,awareness, and lifelong stewardship of our natural environment for PreK – 8th grade students; the Bridging the Watershed program, which provides personally meaningful, educational experiences that connect high school students to their place in the natural world; and the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, which seeks to create a lasting reduction of litter in the Potomac Watershed.

photo 2Our Trash Free Schools Project bridges our three core programs as it works to educate and empower students, teachers, and staff to reduce their school’s waste footprint by providing education and resources. As part of the project, students and staff at K-12 schools are provided with the resources needed to investigate and take action on an environmental issue by implementing a strong waste reduction and litter prevention strategy. Get your school involved at

We have recently revitalized the website, guidebook, and resource center for the Trash Free Schools Project to make sure that we can share the most up to date resources and opportunities with our schools. The Resource Center is designed to serve as the hub for perspective and enrolled schools to find activities, lesson plans, how-to guides, and other tools to help them organize, educate, and take action on trash. It allows us share curriculum plans to teachers while also providing them with service learning opportunities to complement them.

high resolution book coverAs we continue to look for useful resources and tools for our schools, we are always excited when we find a creative way to teach about the harmful nature of litter in our watershed. Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle fits the bill by painting the story of the journey of a water bottle from a Maryland storm drain to the Atlantic Ocean, through clever storytelling and compelling pictures. The book also provides tips to reduce plastic usage as well as other resources for students and teachers who are driven to action. We are happy to spread the word about this great resource and hope like Scout the Water Bottle, readers of this book will go on a journey of discovery and take action to preserve our watershed.

Eye Opening Event

June 21st, 2013

By Karen Miles,  Land Use/ Facilities Manager

We are in the midst of a two-week teacher institute for elementary and middle school teachers from Prince George’s County Public Schools.  This is something that I look forward to each year.  I view our work with many of the participants as molding a lump of clay and beginning the process of turning it into something of great beauty!  We open the eyes of so many people to things that are always in their surroundings, but never saw them through a lens that could process what was around them.  Each day brings a new “aha experience”.

Below are some photos of this year’s institute thus far. We will be updating throughout the week so stay tuned!


















Photos by Bill Townsend, more photos coming soon…