Wild parsnip is back in season. But, what is it and where is it found?
Wild parsnip is one of the most common plants; it is typically found in along roadways, bike trails, and open fields, but has also been found in gardens and on residential lawns. The plant, which is typically two to five feet tall, has small yellow flowers, with an upside-down umbrella shape resembling Queens Anne’s Lace. It can survive under a broad range of environmental conditions, from dry soils to wet meadows.
While this plant appears to be harmless, it excretes a sap that is extremely toxic to human skin, causing a skin rash, skin discoloration, burns, and painful blisters. In some cases, the burns are akin to second-degree sunburn.
The good news is that the sap is phototoxic, which means that it can only cause damage if the skin affected is exposed to sunlight. But, once the toxin is absorbed into the skin and is exposed to sunlight, some reaction is inevitable, and will usually begin to appear 24 – 48 hours after exposure. So, if you unknowingly get some of the sap on your skin, by the time the pain arrives, it is far too late. If you are aware, however, that your skin has been affected, immediately cover the exposed skin until it can be washed with soap and water.
There is no cure for burns caused by wild parsnips other than waiting for your skin to heal in its own time. In extreme, yet rare cases, the affected area may remain discolored and sensitive to sunlight for up to two years. The best treatment is apply topical remedies to reduce discomfort and avoid an infection. If necessary, a doctor can prescribe a topical cortisone steroid to ease symptoms. If blisters appear, try not to rupture them.
Officials across the Midwest have been issuing warnings recently because the plant has been spreading so rapidly. But, the problem is not limited to the Midwest. Wild parsnip has been found in nearly every state, except those in the south.
What can you do? Contact the elected officials responsible for maintaining your state’s roadways. Ask them to implement a plan to protect the land and the people from this toxic weed. Secondly, while it may seem like a beautiful bouquet of love from your little darlings, if you notice this toxic plant anywhere near your property, be sure to take proper measures. Wear gloves, clothing that covers your arms and legs, and facial protection when pulling the weed or if you are using a trimmer, weed-whacker or mower.
The best time to control patches is actually later in the fall, or early next spring, as this will control the young plants that will flower next year. Spraying during, or just after, flowering is not very effective, as the dying plants can still produce viable seed. The most effective time to mow wild parsnip is when the plant first produces flowers, but before the seeds enlarge. This prevents spreading the seed heads.
Being able to readily identify wild parsnip and early detection of infested areas will minimize inadvertent exposure and the painful results that follow. The Minnesota Department of Transportation offers a brochure to help people identify the plant at different life stages and seasons of the year.
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