parsnip is ubiquitous in the Midwest and causes
horrible skin reactions, including blisters and
know enough to sidestep a melted Popsicle on the
sidewalk. Your devotion to sunscreen borders on
religious: Yes, you reapply. Dehydration? You fight it
with an always-full water bottle. You’ve mastered
warm-weather hazards like some kind of summertime ninja.
In a sun hat.
we bet you never saw the parsnip coming.
know the parsnip, that white, carrotlike veggie you tend
to eye suspiciously at the grocery store before reaching
for the friendly, orange carrots? That parsnip, like a
lot of us, has some wild cousins. And those wild
parsnips, which show up along Illinois roadways, at the
edges of parking areas, in vacant lots or anywhere weeds
flourish this time of year, can put a serious dent in
your summertime fun.
may have come across the evidence online — over the
last few weeks, people have been posting photos of
themselves, post-wild parsnip encounter, and the car
wreck-style fascination has spread like internet
wildfire. Or, you know, weeds.
a run-in with a patch of wild parsnip, it turns out, is
likely to result in a skin reaction that can amount to
the equivalent of second-degree burns, complete with
impressively horrifying blisters that make for really
eye-catching social media posts. The blisters can take
weeks to heal. And even then, skin discoloration in the
affected areas can remain for a year or more. "It’s
really nasty stuff," says Boyce Tankersley,
director of living plant documentation at the Chicago
burns are caused by the wild parsnip’s sap, or juice,
coming into contact with skin and then being exposed to
sunlight. The technical term is phytophotodermatitis, a
plant and sunlight-based skin reaction. The sap contains
a chemical which, when absorbed by the skin, greatly
increases its sensitivity to sunlight.
"Essentially," says Tankersley, "you get
a really, really bad sunburn." Doctors treat the
injury as a second-degree burn, though it is sometimes
mistaken for poison ivy exposure.
parsnip burns come from contact with the sap — which
means you have to come into contact with a broken leaf
or stem, rather than just brushing past an intact plant,
to have the worst-case reaction. However, some people
with sensitive skin have reported problems from exposure
to leaves. And a few clumsy steps down a roadway
embankment or off the hiking path could easily result in
getting tangled up in broken stems. Days later, you’ll
realize that those yellow flowers you saw as you tripped
down the slope signaled the presence of a plant that’s
the man-o-war jellyfish of the meadow.
wild parsnip, which is classified as an invasive plant
in the U.S., has become a lot more prevalent than those
parsnip has been reported in every Illinois county, and
it’s as ubiquitous in other Midwest states," says
Clair Ryan, the coordinator of the Midwest Invasive
Plant Network. "And at the point an invasive plant
is ubiquitous, it becomes impossible to eradicate."
settlers to our area brought both the parsnip and the
wild carrot — a related plant commonly known as Queen
Anne’s lace — to our area, and both have thoroughly
populated the region. In addition, there is a native
variety, cow parsnip, that can produce the same skin
reaction as the invasive parsnip but is much less
seeds that are spread by wind and birds, the wild
parsnip has flourished along roadsides and "pretty
much any habitat that would be suitable for it,"
says Ryan. Road managers, she says, often effectively
cope with the plant through carefully timed mowing,
which must take place before seeds mature to control the
recommends keeping an eye on your property if you have
areas in which weeds might feel at home, so that you can
deal with the parsnip before it matures — though he
and Ryan advise caution if you plan to dig the weed out
yourself. "You might want to hire somebody to do
it," Tankersley says.
you do plan to be in areas where wild parsnip or other
poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison
sumac or giant hogweed (all found in Illinois, though
some are far less prevalent than others) might be
growing, it’s wise to remember a few basics:
Know your enemy.
want people to know that just because something is green
and growing doesn’t mean it’s awesome," says
Ryan. "But once you know how to identify the few
plant species that are poisonous, there’s no reason to
be afraid to go outside." There are many resources
for identifying wild parsnip and other dangerous plants
online, and if you’re still stumped, the University of
Illinois Extension offices are available to answer plant
ID questions via email.
Wear protective clothing.
gardeners and outdoors enthusiasts will always be in
long sleeves and pants, and closed shoes. Novices will
often avoid these and suffer the consequences. That
layer of clothing can protect you from poison ivy and
parsnip burns. Just remember to carefully remove and
wash your clothes afterward.
you suspect you may have been in contact with a
poisonous plant, the most important thing you can do is
wash the affected area, as soon as possible. Removing
sap or plant oils before they can be absorbed can help
reduce a reaction.
Stay out of the sun.
are many reasons to avoid the sun, including that it’s
necessary to produce those parsnip burns if you’ve
come in contact with the sap.
Avoid your string trimmer.
it comes to parsnip or poison ivy removal, the string
trimmer, with its blunt-force-trauma approach to
cutting, is a dicey choice, since it can cause sap to