Nature Nut: Like it or not, parsnip seems to be here to stay
I still have not been able to determine exactly when wild parsnip invaded SE Minnesota, but whenever it was, it is thriving more than ever.
Currently the 4- to 5-foot-high yellow florets of wild parsnip are the dominant vegetation along many miles of southeastern MInnesota road ditches, as well as struggling prairies. Healthy prairies seem to have the ability to fight it off, although not always.
I first recall being aware of wild parsnip when I took a wild edibles class at Quarry Hill before working there. We harvested some roots from the plants, which looked like carrots, only creamy in color. When served with many of our other collectibles, they weren't too bad. Perhaps a little stringier and tougher than carrots, but they had a sweeter taste to them.
Then, when I got to Quarry Hill, we began noticing the parsnip was taking over areas we preferred to be in more native plants, especially prairies we had been developing. We tried using volunteers, staff, and scouts doing Eagle projects, but soon realized it was a losing battle. Warning kids to keep away from wild parsnip, along with poison ivy and nettles, became part of the first day of summer camp.
Later, when working with the city to first save, and then manage, the Northern Hills Prairie Park monarch butterfly habitat, we also encountered wild parsnip invading and taking over much of the prairie. Although I didn't get in on too much of the picking, I suspect lead volunteer Susan Wieseler picked tens of thousands of the flowering plant heads.
Unfortunately, you can't just pick the ripe flowers, but need to dispose of them, or they will continue maturing and producing seeds, even cut off from their roots.
Wild parsnip belongs in the carrot family, and is a biennial like carrot. It has been cultivated as a food source in Europe and Asia for centuries and was probably introduced to the US sometime at the end of the 1800s.
Unfortunately, people sometimes come into contact with wild parsnip, which can be a terrible experience. I've only had a reaction once, but recall a Eagle Scout parent getting it all over her arms and legs, requiring her to be admitted to the hospital for a week.
Unlike poison ivy, which causes the body to react to a chemical, wild parsnip actually cause a skin burn, especially in the presence of sunlight and sweat. Chemicals in the stems and leaves causing this photochemical reaction may often lead to large bubbly blisters, which later turn into brownish spots on the skin. Some are visible for weeks, months, or even years, according to the one person who said his did not disappear for 20 years.
Laura Scheinoha, Olmsted County Health environmental health specialist, wants people to be aware of the plant and avoid it whenever possible. She recommends if involved with plant removal projects, wear protective clothing and avoid mowing or weed whipping, as it can spread in the air that way.
If you do get exposed to the plant, try to get out of the sun ASAP. Unfortunately the chemical reaction is quicker than poison ivy, so washing when you get home may not do any good. Try not to break or scratch the blisters that may form, and use hydrocortisone cream to relieve pain and itching.
As I have previously stated, I believe most of our invasives, like wild parsnip, are here to stay for many years, decades, or even centuries.
Unfortunately, another parsnip relative with similar chemicals, the white flowering Queen Anne's Lace, is showing up in road ditches after the blooming of the parsnip. Time will tell if it also becomes a problem.