While walking on the trails at River Bend, you may have enjoyed the sight of numerous summer flowers—in the prairies, forests, and ponds. And while these splashes of bright color are great for both nature lovers and pollinators alike, there is one species among them that acts as a bit of a villain. Chances are you’ve seen these plant before, but like any good villain, it stays well under the radar and disguises itself. Because of this, many people remain unaware of the danger. The plant in question is what’s known as “wild parsnip”. And if it sounds like something you’d find in the kitchen, you’d be right—the wild parsnip is a vegetable specifically cultivated for its large edible taproot (similar to carrots and other parsnips). It is a native plant to Europe and Asia, but after being brought overseas, it quickly escaped cultivation and took to forest and field with a vigor that outcompeted and overwhelmed most other native species of North America. In Minnesota, it is predominantly found in the southeastern region of the state, where it takes over prairies—sometimes to the point of turning them into complete monocultures. The resulting prairies resemble an “ocean of yellow”, as no other plants remain, leaving nothing visible except the bright yellow flowers on their tall stalks.
The Minnesota DNR describes parsnip as the following:
Appearance: Monocarpic perennial herbaceous plant (plant spends one or more years in rosette stage, blooms under favorable conditions, and then dies), 6″ high in the rosette stage and 4′ high on stout, grooved stems in the flowering stage.
Leaves: Alternate, leaf is made up of 5 -15 egg shaped leaflets along both sides of a common stalk; leaflets sharply-toothed or lobed at the margins; upper leaves smaller.
Flowers: Flat-topped broad flower cluster 2 – 6″ wide, numerous five-petaled yellow flowers; bloom from June to late summer.
Seeds: Small, flat, round, slightly ribbed, strawcolored, abundant take 3 weeks to ripen before they can reseed; viable in the soil for 4 years.
Roots: Long, thick, edible taproot.
Unfortunately, the plants’ aggressive tendencies really is the least of it. Not only does it push other species out, but it actually poses a health hazard. The danger lies in the sap of the plant—the juices that flow through the stem and leaves and bring nutrients to all parts of the plant.
There are chemicals in wild parsnip sap called psoralens (speifically, furocoumarins) that cause what dermatologists call “phytophotodermatitis.” That means an inflammation (itis) of the skin (derm) induced by a plant (phyto) with the help of sunlight (photo). When absorbed by skin, and then exposed to the sun, furocoumarins are energized by ultraviolet light (present during BOTH sunny and cloudy days) causing them to bind with nuclear DNA and cell membranes. This process destroys cells and skin tissue, though the reaction takes time to produce visible damage. In less severe cases, affected skin reddens and feels sunburned afterwards. In more severe cases, the skin reddens first, then blisters rise, with some potentially even being quite large. And for a while the area feels like it has been scalded. Places where skin is most sensitive (arms, legs, torso, face, neck) are most vulnerable. Moisture from perspiration also speeds up the absorption of the psoralens.
According to the Wisconsin DNR, concerning the burns:
- Everyone can get it. Unlike poison ivy, you don’t need to be sensitized by a prior exposure. Wild parsnip causes a non-allergic dermatitis that can occur with the right combination of plant juice and sunlight.
- You can touch and brush against the plant – carefully – without harm. Parsnip is only dangerous when the juice gets on skin from broken leaves or stems. Fair-skinned people, however, may be extra-sensitive to tiny amounts of juice.
- Wild parsnip’s “burn” is usually less irritating than poison ivy’s “itch.” Generally, wild parsnip causes a modest burning pain for a day or two, and then the worst is over. The itch and discomfort from poison ivy, in contrast, can drive people crazy for a long time.
At River Bend Nature Center, wild parsnip has become a large problem—it dominates the southern prairies, and creeps up into the edges of trails where the largest danger comes from unaware visitors (especially young ones) picking the attractive flowers. To help reduce this risk, the staff and volunteers of River Bend have been removing parsnip as it appears along trails in order to keep it “out of reach”. In addition to this, prairie burns are conducted, as well as organized pulls and cuts. However, due to the number of plants and the large area they cover, it is often a slow process which is difficult to see progress in. For this reason, River Bend relies on the help of volunteers and other members of the community. We rely on them to be aware of the plant, heed warning signs posted along trails, and to also help educate others. We also rely on their assistance with the removal of the plant itself.
If you are interested in land restoration and the removal of parsnip, there are several upcoming opportunities for you to get involved:
Restoration Work Day – Parsnip Pull
Ages 10 and up. Free!
Wednesday, July 12th, 2017, 3:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017, 10:00-noon
Join us for a restoration-themed work day. Twice a month we’ll head out onto the River Bend property to remove non-native invasive species and work to restore native habitat. You’ll learn restoration skills at River Bend that you can take home and implement on your property! No experience needed, no commitment required. Come once or come for them all!
This month’s program will be focused on the removal of wild parsnip. But the Restoration Program is ongoing through the summer on the 2nd Wednesday of the month from 3:00pm – 5:00pm, and the 4th Sunday of the month from 10:00am – 12:00pm, with a different focus each meeting.
To register, call or visit our website: https://riverbend.z2systems.com/np/clients/riverbend/event.jsp?event=1676