Wild Parsnip: A Poisonous Weed too Watch for

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Wild Parsnip

Poison Parsnip has become more common in the United States and is usually found in areas where other common weeds thrive, but it’s become a health concern.

This non-native poison or better known as wild parsnip from Europe and Asia is in the same family as several other common weeds and wildflowers, such as Queen Anne’s Lace, dill, carrots and celery. Related to the parsnips grown by gardeners for their edible roots, but the wild variety, also sometimes called meadow parsnip, should be avoided.

Wild parsnip plant parts contain a substance called psoralen, which can cause a condition known as “phytophotodermatitis.”

Clusters of bright yellow flowers held like umbrellas on three- to five-foot stalks, releases a chemical or sap that is highly toxic. When exposed to sunlight, juices from the plant on bare skin can cause severe, painful blistering and burning.

It’s not just a tiny part of this parsnip that’s dangerous. All parts of the plants, from the stems and flowers to the roots and seeds, contain chemicals in the juices that can cause a very intense, localized burn where contact is made with the skin. This means that landowners attempting to clear the weed, as well as children picking flowers for bouquets, and even hikers who brush up against the leaves and stems with clothing or bare skin are at risk.

Learning to recognize wild parsnip is the best defense in avoiding its painful side effects. Learn how the plant looks in all seasons so that you can steer clear of it.

According to Iowa State’s Integrated Crop Management, “Wild parsnip and poison hemlock typically act as biennials (occasionally as perennials), forming a rosette of basal leaves the first year, overwintering, and then flowering the second year. Wild parsnip flowers primarily from May through July; poison hemlock flowers from May through August.”

“The basal rosette of wild parsnip consists of large, pinnately compound leaves that resemble celery leaves. Leaves that develop on the stem are alternate, pinnately compound, with saw-toothed edges. The lower leaves have petioles (leaf stalks) whereas the upper leaves are attached directly to the stem (sessile). The stem is hollow and grooved, 2 to 5 feet in height. The flowers are small, predominantly yellow (occasionally white), and five-petaled, arranged in an umbel spanning from 2 to 6 inches,” Integrated Crop Management explains.

Wild Parsnip, identification of the Wisconsin Invasive Species Pastinaca sativa

This video provides key characteristics for the identification of invasive plants listed in Wisconsin’s invasive species administrative rule NR 40.

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