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Wild parsnip - worse since we last talked

July 10, 2016
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

A flowering weed has been in the news of late. The plant is called Wild Parsnip. Because of the impact it can have on your skin, my daughter suggested that I make it a topic for this news column. I wrote about it several years ago but because I doubt there are many scrapbooks that people keep of "My Favorite Kevin Williams' News Columns" I decided to run the column again this week. From July 13, 2007:

A drive in the country doesn't have to be very long before you notice all of the yellow flowered plants growing in the ditches. The plant is called Wild Parsnip.

I got to know the plant early in my life. Growing up on a farm in Jasper County, I remember my first encounter with the plant very well. I had seen the yellow flower down near the creek but didn't pay it much mind. It was a day or so later that I wondered what the blisters were that had developed on my arms. My Uncle Reece only had to have one look to tell me that it was Wild Dill his name for the plant because the dried flower reminded him of the garden herb used to make dill pickles.

Article Photos

Photos by Kevin Williams

From that time on, I avoided the plant. Oh, I would have more encounters over the years. The blisters would sometimes be quite large. And they could be painful when bumped. Try as I would to prevent it, they would eventually break and be open sores for a time. And if it was a hot day and your skin was sweaty, it seemed to be worse. I later would learn that moisture and sunlight both could worsen the exposure.

I learned to avoid contact with the plant at any cost. If by chance you see me out on one of the county wildlife areas walking through the tall vegetation with my hands straight up in the air, don't be alarmed. I am not being held hostage. I am only avoiding contact with that plant wild parsnip.

Wild parsnip is an invasive plant and an alien species. Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), a native of Eurasia, is an erect herbaceous plant related to the carrot family growing three to four feet in height. And much to my dismay, the wild parsnip population along Iowa's roadsides, pastures and abandoned fields is getting much heavier across Iowa.

The plant grows in disturbed areas from dry to wet and especially it seems along roadsides. Once an infestation begins, it spreads across an area to form denser and denser stands that are difficult to control.

Wild parsnip contains chemicals in the leaves, stems, and flowers that can cause intense, localized skin burning or rashes and even blisters. It seems that contact wild parsnip sap increases the skin's sensitivity to sunlight giving a dermatitis like burn. When walking or working in areas where wild parsnip is present, the best advise is to wear gloves, long pants, and a long sleeved shirt to avoid contact.

If contact has occurred and causes blisters, it is best cover the affected area with cool, wet cloth, avoid letting the blisters rupture by keeping the area clean and applying antibiotic creams or powders. And for serious cases consult your doctor.

So what can we do about it? John Walkowiak with the IDNR has these recommendations. "Control of wild parsnip is difficult and requires good timing and persistence. To control a small amount of wild parsnip, cut the root one to two inches below the ground with a sharp shovel before the flowering begins. Cutting the plants before they flower in April or May can be successful, but wild parsnip may resprout. Natural resources land managers find the use of selected herbicides in the late winter or early spring shows the best results."

As a prairie enthusiast, I hate to see it invade our native prairie remnants and prairie restorations. But sadly prescribed burns do not seem to harm the plants as they simply re-sprout.

Wild Parsnip is another plant to add to the growing list of invasive species. We all will suffer from its continued increase in the roadsides and wild areas but there is a bit of hope. Not everyone seems to have the same reactivity to the plant's juice. I have encountered many people who report having contact with the plant and remained unscathed. I'm that way with Poison Ivy but that's a topic for another column.



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