Gaining Ground

by Laurie Danforth

I planned my attack for early morning when the sky was cloudy and the air was cool.  I donned my attack gear: boots, gloves, long pants and sleeves, and a bright orange safety vest. I was ready to do the deed. My prey was dangerous and on the loose. With shears in hand I intended to change the course of its invasion along Grafton Road. Target species: POISON PARSNIP!!

Within an hour the back of my car was filled with the hollow stems and decapitated flowers and seed heads of this noxious invader. Poison Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) unlike Japanese Knotweed or Purple Loosestrife, is less known to folks and so the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Agriculture has been increasingly working to educate people about the hazards of this plant.

Poison Parsnip or Wild Parsnip resembles a yellow Queen Anne’s Lace. It is a biennial which means that in its first year it establishes a root similar to our edible parsnip and it’s only in the second season that it flowers and sets seeds.

Because Wild Parsnip is a biennial one can begin to control it by working to prevent seed dispersal in its second year. A good thing to know is that even after you cut off the flowers the plant continues to develop its seeds!  Poison Parsnip wants to continue its existence even when separated from its roots!  You must bag up the flowers and dispose of them.

So why all the ruckus about Wild Parsnip?  Many members of the parsnip family have sap which contains furocoumarins. These chemicals in Wild Parsnip are toxic and are produced as a defense mechanism against various types of predators. A chemical reaction called phytophotodermatitis (called “lime disease not to be confused with “Lyme disease”) occurs when the skin comes in contact with the sap.  The furocoumarins make skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. Once the sap on skin is exposed to sunlight painful blisters erupt.

The best defense against “lime disease” is to work on a cloudy day with the appropriate gear, as described above, and afterwards thoroughly wash any exposed skin. It’s a good idea as well to wear a bright orange safety vest because Wild Parsnip loves the poor, dry soil of roadsides. You want to be sure that you have high visibility as no one is accustomed to seeing an individual cutting down plants along busy roadsides. Last year folks thought I was out foraging for edible plants!

My eradication mission has been underway for two years and I have already seen a big reduction in new plants in the areas I have been working to control and I haven’t  had one instance of blistering.  It really feels great to go into action knowing that I can make a difference in one hour to help stop the invasion of Poison Parsnip on my adopted road.  So keep a lookout on your road to see if you might join me to help stem the spread of this invader. Next year I will again take up the gauntlet and be ready to cut down any newcomers who dare take up residence on Grafton Road.