photo by Annie Roonie
Enjoying the summer outdoors has its risks: mosquitos, poison ivy and sunburn, to name just a few. But until recently, one of these hazards had escaped my notice.
Beware the deceptively innocuous wild parsnip.
A couple weeks ago, I called a prospective client to follow up on an earlier conversation. He had said he would send me information about his investments so we could prepare for an initial consultation. While I didn’t want to rush him, I was eager to get to work on his affairs whenever he was ready.
Apologetically, he told me that he was running behind because he had been the victim of a patch of wild parsnips – a problem I had never heard of prior to that conversation. From his description of his discomfort and my subsequent research, I was very lucky to miss out on the first-hand experience.
Many gardeners and hikers are savvy enough to avoid certain plants, especially the poison trifecta of ivy, oak and sumac. These plants all release an oil, urushiol, which can cause the characteristic itchy, red rash when people brush against it. For those who react badly, the rash is essentially an allergic reaction to the urushiol. Contact dermatitis from poison ivy is deeply unpleasant, but most people have at least heard the reminder “Leaves of three, let it be.” We can do our best to avoid brushing against such three-leaved hazards.
Wild parsnips are different. You can lightly brush by them or touch their unbroken leaves with no particular problem; their roots are even edible, like those of their domesticated cousin. The danger comes from a compound called furanocoumarin, found in the plant’s sap. Instead of creating an allergic reaction, the sap causes severe sun sensitivity.
The sensitivity, formally known as phytophotodermatitis, is a serious problem. For those who are unlucky enough to get wild parsnip sap on their skin without noticing, normal levels of sun exposure can cause intense sunburns, severe blistering and discoloration of the skin. According to Cornell University’s information on invasive species in New York, the affected area remains sensitive to sunlight for about eight hours after exposure, though keeping the skin covered – or better yet, indoors – and washing it thoroughly can help. This requires noticing you’ve had a wild parsnip run-in, though, which is not always easy. The reaction usually begins 24 to 48 hours after exposure, so if you fail to notice the plant itself, by the time the pain arrives it is far too late.
Unfortunately, this problem is not specific to New York. Though originally native to Eurasia, wild parsnips have spread vigorously across the continental United States. Specimens of the plant in Wisconsin, where my unlucky prospective client lives, date back to the 19th century. Now they can be found everywhere except a few Southern states. My Palisades Hudson colleagues in Florida and Georgia don’t have to worry about the parsnips, but those of us in New York, Texas and Oregon all have to keep an eye out.
There is no cure for burns caused by wild parsnips other than waiting for your skin to heal in its own time. In extreme cases, the affected area may remain discolored and sensitive to sunlight for up to two years, though not all incidents are this severe. In the meantime, the best you can do is apply topical remedies meant to reduce discomfort. In very intense cases, a doctor can prescribe a topical or systemic cortisone steroid to ease symptoms. Otherwise, you’re stuck waiting it out. And, unlike poison ivy, no one is naturally immune.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation offers a brochure to help people identify wild parsnips at different life stages and seasons of the year. A mature plant is 2 to 5 feet high and produces clusters of flowers, not unlike a yellow version of Queen Anne’s lace (a wildflower to which it is, in fact, related). The plants tend to line roadways, bike trails and fields. Wildflower enthusiasts and gardeners alike should proceed with caution.
Wild parsnip should not ruin anyone’s summer. But like bees in a rose garden or ants at a picnic, they have the potential to turn an enjoyable outing into a miserable one. I, for one, plan to keep a wary eye out for the yellow flowers from now on.