This week’s blog comes courtesy of naturalist Charles Vigdal, who addresses a topic that has made headlines throughout the state recently — wild parsnip.
I have heard a lot of new talk about a plant that I have learned to watch out for in the ditches and wild areas since I was a kid. Many people ask me about this “new kid on the block” but like the 90s boy band, it has been around for a long time. This plant is the wild parsnip or pastinaca sativa. It is often confused with another invasive look alike, Queen Anne’s Lace, which differs by having a white umbel flower head instead of a yellow one like the parsnip. You undoubtedly have seen it in abundance this year and have seen a couple of media clips warning about its toxic properties.
Wild parsnip is an exotic species that originates from Eurasia and has been actually used as a food source, much like carrots and parsley, its close relative. It was brought to America by the earliest settlers and provided them with a familiar food from home. Nowadays it has found its place on the weed list with many other introduced edible plants like dandelions, purslane, and plantain. You also might have heard that this plant, when crushed, releases a sap that if left on the skin can react with sunlight and cause a burn that can be very damaging and painful. So if you are outdoors where wild parsnip is present, just practice caution. Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and wear eye safety equipment when doing yard work where this plant is present and if you come into contact with it, wash the affected area.
This plant can be a real annoyance to humans. One way to keep it from getting established and taking over an area is by having a healthy, diverse area of native prairie plants. In native prairie areas, wild parsnips cannot compete and struggle to get established. Wild parsnips flourish in disturbed, un-healthy areas and ditches. So one way to stop the takeover of this invader is to bring back the local prairie plants!