Hell's Own Parsnips
By Ed Barna
I learned about poison parsnips from the same authoritative source that has taught most of the human race most of its lessons: the hard way. One of the best bumper stickers I ever saw said, “OH NO, NOT ANOTHER LEARNING EXPERIENCE.”
Clearing some of the hillside behind my former home in Brandon, I had developed a mysterious rash. I had been very susceptible to poison ivy ever since I was six, when my kind parents decided to keep me from contacting any of “leaflets three let it be” during a family picnic by pulling up and burning all the nearby plants (OH NO, etc.--my face was so swollen I could barely see.). But this was a different rash: purple, in blotches and streaks. A chance visit by a friend brought a diagnosis: “You’ve been into some poison parsnips. If you go through them when they’re wet, you’ll get some of the sap on your skin, and if you don’t wash it off right away, this is what you get.”
I’m writing about this now because two days ago, I tried removing some poison parsnip seedheads when everything was dry, on a clear and cool afternoon, wearing nitrile disposable gloves. Apparently I released some drops of sap while transferring the would-be seeds into a garbage bag, because both wrists now look as if I’d thought about committing suicide. This stuff is ba-a-a-d news.
You’ve seen it, and recognize it, even if you haven’t connected the sight with a name. Blisterweed, to give another of its popular names, now lines many of our roads. In June it looks a little like Queen Anne’s lace; in July it’s tall with clusters of yellow flowers that, again like Queen Anne’s lace (which is actually carrot gone wild) flattened domes (I almost wrote doomes. Maybe I should have.)
Scientifically, this is Pastinaca sativa, according to a Natural Conservancy “Element Stewardship Abstract.” (Those of you thinking it might be related to Cannabis sativa and might make a good smoke should think twice: sativa is the individual name, not the family name. Smoking this stuff could put you in a Dartmouth-Hitchcock movie.)
To go on with the Nature Conservancy, basically they say this one doesn’t deserve to be conserved. “Pastinaca sativa invades disturbed bare areas, especially those with calcareous soils. It is an undesirable exotic weed and produces a compound that causes severe blistering and discoloration on contact with the skin on sunny days, a condition known as photodermatitis. In infested areas it regularly occurs along paths and roadsides where
eradication is desirable from a human safety as well as ecological standpoint.”
When you get into folkloric stories, grimmer things than photodermatitis are attributed to this parsnip from Hell. In a book of tales of Western North Carolina, for instance, one of the stories handed down is of two pre-Civil War slaves on two plantations who had fallen in love. Learning that a man was coming from Texas to marry one of the owners, they realized that unless the Texas man bought the other slave, they would be torn apart. From here on out, I quote the original text: “So, it is supposed, for there was never any tangible proof against either, that these two ignorant and infatuated lovers poisoned William Mast and his wife by putting wild or poison parsnips into their coffee. But the scheme miscarried; for, though William and his wife died that day (October 16), Jacob Mast took Silas to Texas with him, while John Whittington bought Millie and sold her to people in Tennessee, which effectually parted them
forever. Elbert Dinkins of Caldwell county was then teaching school in the neighborhood, and was boarding at William Mast's; and he told Dr. J. B. Phillips of Cove creek the above facts.”
From a Wyoming site that collects historical information and lore comes this: “At the Hill store in Dayton the Post man was shown the roots of two poison parsnips, which caused the death of fourteen head of cattle belonging to W. N. Robinson, two weeks ago. A number of years ago a young boy died near town from eating these parsnips.” This contradicts information later in the story; personally, I don’t feel like making a definite experiment.
But they’re bad enough simply as a nuisance. This is from Daniel Hazlett, who writes a weekly column for the website of a collective of Midwestern farms called Organic Valley: “I'm noticing around that some of the county and township road crews are late in mowing the road side, which is causing a problem with invasive plants. If they wait to mow until the noxious weeds have gone to seed, the mower blades spread seed along the road and these invasive plants spread quickly across the landscape.
“Prickly thistles are becoming more of a problem, with Bull, Scotch, and Nodding thistles popping up everywhere. Garlic mustard plants are spreading out of control and crowding out the native plants that normally would be there. By far, though, the worst noxious weed problem I've witnessed here in the past decade is the epidemic spread of wild poison parsnip.
“Where the summer landscape was once lush and green, you can now see acres of tall, bright yellow flowerheads. The plants grow very close together and each plant can grow six feet tall by the second year. I can't argue that a yellow blanket of flowers doesn't look pretty along the road, but there is much danger in its beauty.
“Brushing bare skin across a flower top will almost certainly raise some very nasty blisters that can scar like a burn. Another discouraging thought is that the seeds may lie dormant in the ground for 6 to 8 years before sprouting. Trying to control the poison parsnips will be a long term battle. It breaks my heart to see what remains of the open grasslands being gobbled up by this yellow-topped invader.”
They’re a problem in parts of New York State, too--enough so that the Delhi News Bureau’s Patricia Breakey went to the Delaware (County) Cooperative Extension for perspectives and advice. The next quotation section has lots of useful information, but it’s lengthy, so if you’re in a hurry and want to see how this essay ends, go to the last paragraph. To continue:
“If you see them, don't touch them, Paul Cerosaletti, Delaware County Cooperative Extension horticulturist, said. "It's wild parsnip, and there is a chemical in the sap that causes burns and blisters when it's exposed to ultraviolet rays in sunlight," Cerosaletti said. "The condition is called phyto-photo-dermatitis. It's every bit as bad as poison ivy — or worse."
“Darlene Crowe, Otsego County Cooperative Extension horticultural program assistant, said the pesky weeds have been in the area for years, but they are particularly numerous this year. "We used to call it blister weed," Crowe said...
“Crowe said the plants were originally introduced to the United States from Asia more than 100 years ago.
"They were introduced on purpose — as a food plant," Crowe said. "The roots are edible.”
“Delaware County Cornell Cooperative Extension educator Mariane Kiraly said wild parsnip is an invasive species that is becoming a big problem. "Somehow, they spread like wildfire, and they need to be contained," Kiraly said.
“Cerosaletti said that the sap is the most noxious when the plant is flowering — and the plants are now at the flowering stage. "It worries me that the wild parsnips could be in an area where kids are playing, and they might pick the flowers," Cerosaletti said...
“The plants grow six feet or taller and they are prolific seed bearers, which is causing them to reproduce at an alarming rate. Cerosaletti said he became concerned about safety issues when his sister-in-law mowed her lawn wearing shorts and developed blisters all over her legs the following day.
“Then he got a call from a Margaretville farmer who had also tangled with the troublesome weed. Lauren Davis, who owns a farm on the edge of the village, said that he and his helper were pulling up the weeds by the roots and didn't realize they are poisonous. "The next day we had burns and blisters," Davis said. "It was the kid that got it worse than I did. Then it scabbed over and got a hard crust. It's not so much painful, but it's extremely irritating. It itches like crazy..."
“Cerosaletti said the chemical in wild parsnip that causes the burning and blistering is found in the green leaves, stems and fruits of wild parsnip. The chemical is energized by ultraviolet light, causing a breakdown of cells and skin tissue. The effects don't appear for 24 to 48 hours later, when the skin develops a red, sunburn-like area. In many cases, after the skin reddens, blisters appear.
Sometimes the area that was burned takes on a dark red or brown discoloration that can last for as long as two years. Parsnip burns often appear as streaks and long spots (EB: Yup.) because the juicy leaf or stem is often dragged across the skin, he said...
"People may not realize that they have been exposed to wild parsnip because of the delayed reaction time," Kiraly said. "When they suddenly develop blisters they don't necessarily connect it to something that happened a day or two ago. And they may not even remember that they were weed whacking or walking through weeds."
Wild parsnips don't like shade, which is at least part of the reason that they grow along open stretches of highway. Cerosaletti said there are huge patches growing along state Route 10 between Walton and Delhi and in other areas throughout the region.
“Delaware County Department of Public Works Commissioner Wayne Reynolds said the local road crews no longer spray herbicides, partially because of complaints from homeowners, concerns from organic gardeners and increased regulations since the Watershed agreement went into effect. "I am warning my crews to be careful when they are moving or working along the roadside, to make sure they protect themselves from the sap and to avoid cutting the wild parsnip where it might enter streams and endanger people who are in the water," Reynolds said.
“Cerosaletti said wild parsnip is a member of the carrot family. It's a biennial plant, which means it takes two years to develop the flowering stalks. It spends its first summer as a rosette of leaves fairly close to the ground. The plant has a long, thick taproot. The second year it sends up a single flower stalk that holds hundreds of yellow flowers in flat-topped, clusters called umbels.
“Controlling wild parsnips is a problem, Cerosaletti said. Cutting the root of each plant with a sharp shovel or spade, just below ground level can help stop the spread. Regular mowing, or grazing by cows, keeps wild parsnip from flowering and making seeds.
“Kiraly said an all-purpose over-the-counter herbicide will kill the plant.” EB: let’s be more specific here. A contributor to a GardenWeb invasive species forum on poison parsnips had this to say: “My burns were like yours, only all over my legs. Made the mistake of having shorts on. I wanted to let people know that weed-b-gone max killed the parsnip but left everything else in good shape. I was using Roundup but that was killing everything. I'm going to be using more weed-b-gone this year.”
Which leads me to a proposal for my fellow Vermonters: a month or so after Green-Up Day, have a statewide Invasive Species Weekend. There are dozens and dozens of botanical terrorists out there on the landscape, threatening to change our beloved state forever. With some advice from UVM Extension, and with some kind corporation donating disposable Tyvek hazardous materials suits (they’re dirt cheap online at www.TekSupply.com), we could fight back. Think about it, the next time you’re driving along this month and see yards and house lots and football fields and cow pastures of tall weeds taking over. They’re yellow; are we?
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