In which the yellow peril of the plant world shows up

Our wild parsnip

Looks kind of pretty, doesn’t it? But people, you do not want to discover this plant on your property. Unfortunately, I did.

Among the many things that urban dwellers (such as I once was) rarely or never have to think about are invasive plants. By this I mean flora that are a) non-native and therefore shouldn’t be growing where they are; or b) dangerous; or c) both of the above. Wild parsnip is most assuredly both of the above.

Here in Eastern Ontario, we’ve been hearing about the threat of wild parsnip for the past number of years – pretty much ever since Raymond and I bought the Manse in 2012, and very possibly before that. Here’s the lowdown on it, courtesy of the website Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program, run by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters:

Wild parsnip is an invasive plant native to Europe and Asia. It was [probably] brought to North America by European settlers, who grew it for its edible root. Since its introduction, wild parsnip has escaped from cultivated gardens and spread across the continent. Wild parsnip roots are edible, but the sap of the plant can cause severe burns … Wild parsnip, which is also known as poison parsnip, is a member of the carrot/parsley family. It typically grows a low, spindly rosette of leaves in the first year while the root develops. In the second year it flowers on a tall stalk and then dies. The plant can form dense stands and spreads quickly in disturbed areas such as abandoned yards, waste dumps, meadows, open fields, roadsides and railway embankments. Its seeds are easily dispersed by wind and water, and on mowing or other equipment. Like giant hogweed and other members of the carrot family, it produces sap containing chemicals that can cause human skin to react to sunlight, resulting in intense burns, rashes or blisters.

In North America, scattered wild parsnip populations are found from British Columbia to California, and from Ontario to Florida. It has been reported in all provinces and territories of Canada except Nunavut. The plant is currently found throughout eastern and southern Ontario, and researchers believe it is spreading from east to west across the province.

Lovely, huh? Apparently if you manage to get yourself into a patch of wild parsnip, the effect on your skin can make poison ivy look like a picnic. (Though I have heard anecdotally from people around Queensborough that the poisonous sap affects some people more than others, and some people not at all. I do not know if this is scientifically true, or just a well-meaning attempt to downplay the problem.)

Once the wild-parsnip problem penetrated my consciousness a few years ago, thanks to awareness campaigns by the likes of the anglers and hunters federation and, of course, the provincial government, I quickly became aware of the extent of it. In our area, wild parsnip is, not to put too fine a point on it, everywhere. Along the roads, in ditches, at the edge of wooded areas – and, most worrisomely to me, alongside sidewalks right here in Queensborough. Here, take a look:

Wild parsnip alongside the sidewalk

Just look at all the wild parsnip reaching out across a sidewalk in Queensborough. This is not great for people who might be using that sidewalk – especially kids – and brushing up against the noxious plant.

In a village where there are a lot of children running and skipping and riding their bikes around – which is a wonderful thing – do we really want our sidewalks lined with a plant that can cause very unpleasant damage to tender young skin? I think not. But here’s the thing: wild parsnip is a bugger (excuse my language) to get rid of. As I discovered first-hand a month or so ago.

I was out pacing the acreage of the Manse one perfect summer morning, admiring the work I’d done in a shade garden in one corner and nearby, against the fence on the property’s southern edge, my newly installed asparagus plant. Suddenly I noticed another plant along that same fenceline: tall, with attractive yellow flowers. Attractive it may have been, but it was indisputably wild parsnip, the seeds that created it doubtless having been borne by the wind from one of the hundreds of other such plants growing around here. Yikes!

I looked up the drill on removing wild parsnip from your property, as explained by the natural-resources ministry:

Wear protective clothing, including waterproof gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants and eye protection. A disposable spray suit over your normal clothing provides the best protection. Spray suits are commercial-grade waterproof coveralls. After working around the plant, remove your protective clothing carefully to avoid transferring any sap from your clothing onto your skin. Wash your rubber gloves with soap and water, then take off your spray suit or outer clothing. Wash your rubber gloves again and then take them off. Finally, take off your protective eye wear. Put non-disposable clothing in the laundry and wash yourself immediately with soap and water.

“Dear god,” I thought to myself. “Do I really have to do this?”

Yes, I did. But a spray suit? To get rid of one plant? That was a bit much. Instead, on a day of blazing sun with the temperature in the 30-degree range (that’s high 80s to you Fahrenheit people), I donned jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and shoes, garden gloves and eye protectors. I grabbed the pointy garden shovel that Raymond found at a yard sale a while back, and attacked our wild parsnip plant.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I put on all that unseasonal clothing, I checked the rest of the fenceline to see if there were more wild parsnip plants. The bad news: I found another one. The good news: that was all – just two in total. And as it happened, the second plant was on the other side of the fence that divides the Manse property from the lovely one of our gardening-wiz neighbours, Brian and Sylvia. I figured that since I was going to be tackling our plant, I might as well offer to tackle theirs too – no sense all of us having to get all kitted out with protective gear – so I called them up, explained my discovery, and offered to dig it up. They appreciatively accepted the offer, and in return said they would look after the disposal of both plants. Because get this: you can’t toss a dug-up wild-parsnip plant just anywhere; the disposal is almost as much of a pain in the rear as is the digging-up of the thing. Here’s what the natural-resources ministry has to say about that:

DO NOT burn or compost wild parsnip plants that have been cut down or dug up. If possible, leave the stems to dry out completely at the site. Carefully dispose of plant material in black plastic bags and leave in direct sun for a week or more. Contact your municipality to determine if the bagged plants can be sent to your local landfill site.

Man, this plant is just bad news from first to last.

Anyway.

Wearing my middle-of-winter attire and armed with my trusty shovel, I successfully dug up the wild parsnip plant that was on our side of the fence, and then the wild-parsnip plant that was on Brian and Sylvia’s side. Here’s the specimen from our side, lying on the ground, root and all:

Pulled-out wild parsnip

And here’s Brian and Sylvia’s:

Pulled-out wild parsnip at Brian and Sylvia's

You can’t see it in my photo (I was staying well away, needless to say), but it had a very impressively sized root. It was quite the job to get them both out, and I was proud of myself at the end. And very grateful to Brian and Sylvia for agreeing to dispose of them.

I’m also proud of myself for discovering the plants before there were many of them, and for doing the right thing in getting rid of them. When you drive along our local roads and see the thousands of wild-parsnip plants everywhere, it’s discouraging. Given that wild parsnip is officially listed as a noxious weed in Ontario, municipalities should probably enact bylaws requiring property-owners to get rid of any plants that may show up on their land; but with the rather overwhelming extent of the problem and the daunting task of digging up and disposing of the weeds properly, I can see why they don’t. How would you ever police or enforce such a bylaw, when the problem is so out of control?

However. I am very happy to report that there are zero wild-parsnip plants growing on the Manse property, and if any should show up in future, they will be dealt with. If we all tried to do this, it would be a good thing.

And then all we’d have to worry about would be dog-strangling vine. Oh dear. It’s always something.

6 thoughts on “In which the yellow peril of the plant world shows up

    • I wonder and worry about it, Caroline. Obviously what we don’t want (for the sake of the environment) is mass spraying of some nasty pesticide. But how to rid ourselves of this plant pest – what a conundrum…

  1. I had some a few years ago. I did the same as you by putting on old heavy clothing. We were able to pull it out of the ground by grabbing the stems and loosening the soil with a garden fork. Watering the soil softens it. I wrapped it in clear plastic and left it in the sun to cook. Anyone for parsnip root?
    By the way you did very well!

    • Dave, I never thought of loosening the soil by watering it, but that’s a terrific idea and if I have to do any more wild-parsnip removal in the future, I’ll remember it. And thank you for the compliment on my efforts – coming from such brilliant gardeners and environmentalists as you and Irina, that means a lot!

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