CANTON, N.Y. — If you have a smoke alarm, you don’t need an oven timer. While this attitude is just one of many reasons I do not have a cooking show, not to mention repeat dinner guests, I would imagine even a good cook burns a pot of veggies now and then. It seems those plants may have taken offense, because this is peak season for folks getting burned by vegetables.
The burn is chemical in nature, and the vegetable is wild parsnip, an invasive species whose population has exploded in the past two decades. Related to Queen-Anne’s lace, wild parsnip grows from 3 to 6 feet tall, and by mid-summer is topped by yellow-green “umbrellas” of flowers. It can be found in vacant lots as well as in yards and gardens, but because it’s so effectively spread by mowing equipment, it moves farther along our roadsides each year.
The root of wild parsnip is in fact edible, but its sap, like that of giant hogweed, is “phytophototoxic.” The word may win you a Scrabble game, but it means wild parsnip sap on your skin reacts with sunlight to cause severe burns. Wild-parsnip burns can take months, sometimes years, to heal, and can even cause blindness if it gets in one’s eyes.
It’s a small consolation, but you can’t get symptoms by merely brushing up against this plant, and once the plant is dry it poses no threat, unlike the case with poison ivy. All the same, it’s probably a good idea to wear gloves and long sleeves when handling wild parsnip.
As we all know, when fighting zombies, you grab a shovel and aim for its head. The same with wild parsnip, except you aim for its feet. It has a taproot which is nearly impossible to pull out, but which is easily cut with a shovel. It’s not necessary to get the whole root; just dig as deep as you can to sever the taproot, pry up and the plant will die. You don’t even have to touch it.
If you’re hopelessly outnumbered by wild parsnips, at least mow them to keep them from making seeds while you muster some shovel-wielding townsfolk (pitchforks and torches are optional) to help you. But wear protective clothing when mowing wild parsnip, and unless you have a level-A hazmat suit, don’t use a string trimmer on it.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides like Roundup, works against wild parsnip. It is most effective when used on first-year plants (rosettes), the ones which have no flower stalk, in late summer or early fall. Spraying early in the season may kill the top only, but not the root.
For more information, visit https://www.ontario.ca/document/wild-parsnip or www.sleloinvasives.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Wild-Parsnip-PDF-2016.pdf I suggest everyone try not to burn vegetables any more, though, lest they all become vengeful.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County
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