The roadsides of rural Crawford County in the summertime have long been a sight to behold. Rolling hills, meandering streams, and colorful blooming flowers. Now, many seemed to be lined with a bright yellow plant known as Wild Parsnip.
Looking as though it could be a slightly different colored version of the delightful, harmless to the touch Queen’s Anne Lace, this plant is not harmless. Wild Parsnip can cause trouble for those who brush up against it or grab it thinking it is just another harmless flora or even confusing it with Prairie Parsley, endangered in Wisconsin. Also commonly known as Poisonous Parsnip, the yellow flower is a perennial herbaceous plant that produces flat-topped broad flower clusters ranging generally from two to six inches wide, from June on into late summer. Following its flowering stage the plant will release small, flat, round and slightly ribbed, straw-colored seeds in abundance. These seeds can be viable in the soil for up to four years. Once established, this plant will spread aggressively in sunny areas.
The juice of a wild parsnip, (usually from leaves or stems) when in contact with the skin in the presence of sunlight, can cause rash, discoloration of the skin and blisters also known as phytophotodermatitis. It’s a reaction that not everyone may see right away, according to Crawford County Public Health Nurse Gloria Wall
“We were joking that poisonous parsnip was probably a bouquet that we all brought home to our mothers, many don’t see a reaction the first time they’re expose,” Wall said. This reaction can show up 24 to 48 hours after initial contact. The toxic sap is present in all stages of the plant, but the potency picks up momentum from spring into summer with a gradual decline after it goes to seed.
“If you grab the plant and those oils get on your skin, the sun kind of bakes it, and the rash makes water blisters like you were burnt,” observed Crawford County Public Health Nurse Judy Powell “It doesn’t itch. Washing it right away can help combat it, but it’s important to cover up with long sleeves or pants.”
The parsnip contains furanocoumarins as a defense against herbivory. The reaction is considered a type of chemical burn rather than an allergic reaction. The discolored areas can remain affected for up to two years in some cases.
“It can scar,” Wall emphasized.
Toxic symptoms can also affect livestock and poultry in parts of their bodies where their skin is exposed. It is advised to wear long sleeves and pants while working around the parsnip. If exposed, immediate washing may help lessen the effects of the sap as well. Mowing the plant while it is small is considered one effective way to lessen the crop.
“We have a lot of absentee land owners who are usually just around in the summer to enjoy the beauty of their land, and they may not know what they’re getting into while landscaping,” Powell explained. “But it is important to keep it managed because it will spread.”
Doing so before it goes to seed later in the year is most effective. Going after the treacherous yellow plant with a weed whacker is not advised. Regular grazing by cows also can help keep the wild parsnip from flowering and spreading.
“We are hearing about it, people are not as familiar with it as posion ivy, stinging nettle and other plants, but its out there and people are getting into it and getting burned,” Wall acknowledged.
When grown as an annual in a cultivated garden or foraged in its first year it produces a cream-colored taproot high in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium. The plant, native to Eurasia was popular and cultivated by the Romans. It was even used as a sweetener before the arrival of cane sugar in Europe. It wasn’t introduced into the United States however until the 19th century. There are records of its presences in Wisconsin from as early as 1894.
Like its family member the carrot, parsnips have been eaten since native times. Although now many fear, and despise it, especially in its flowering stage in the second year, the parsnip was highly esteemed in its early days of cultivation. Its importance went as far as being used as a form of payment between Emperors. It was introduced to North America by the French colonists in Canada and the British in the Thirteen Colonies for use as a root vegetable. However, it was replaced as the main source of starch by the potato shortly after that. The uses parsnips are vast when properly harvested and they can be used in most ways that one would a carrot. In Roman times, they were believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Wild parsnip from which the modern cultivated varieties were derived is a plant of rough grassland and waste places, particularly on chalk and limestone soils. When cultivated, the seeds are generally planted in early spring with harvesting beginning in late fall after the first frost and continuing through winter. Low soil temperatures cause some of the starches to be stored in the root and converted into sugar giving them a sweeter taste.
“It’s a beautiful plant, just don’t bring a bouquet of it to my house!” Wall concluded with a chuckle.