I feel it’s time to speak about a plant that has become much maligned in these parts: The wild parsnip. On plant identification walks, inevitably someone will ask me to identify wild parsnip because they have heard something about it–usually in the form of a warning. So in this post, I will speak about all that wild parsnip has to offer, in addition to the challenges we can encounter with it.
Pastinaca sativa is the yellow-flowered carrot family plant that lines roadsides, sunny trails and abandoned fields.
As it is not native to this area, and as it grows so abundantly, it is considered an invasive plant. It is feared and despised by many, not only because it is considered invasive, but because if it is handled a certain way, this plant can cause severe burning to the skin and potentially the eyes if touched by the juice on the skin.
This burning can happen when the stem or leaf of the plant is broken, releasing its juice or sap onto the skin. IF this sap touches the skin while under bright sunlight, it causes a photosensitivity that brings on a severe burn from sun exposure. The burn can cause blistering and intense pain, as well as increased sensitivity to future sunlight exposure.
Therefore, it is important to recognize wild parsnip, and to avoid allowing the broken plant to touch your skin while you’re out in the sunlight. If you accidentally get the sap on your skin however, the burn can still be prevented by washing the exposed area with soap and water immediately after exposure, and keeping it out of the sunlight.
Wild parsnip has the typical umbel of flowers characteristic of plants in its family, the Umbelliferae or Carrot Family. Its yellow flowers resemble those of dill plants. However, as you can see in these photos, its leaves are quite different from those of dill. They have much wider blades, and toothed edges. They grow in paired (opposite) leaflets along a main stem, with one leaflet at the tip. Some of these pictures also show wild grape leaves growing among the parsnip. These leaves are wide and palm-shaped like maple leaves–so do not confuse them for the parnsip leaves which are not palm-shaped but grow in leaflets.
If you have ever seen parsnip growing in a garden, you can recognize it growing in the wild. The reason for this is that wild parsnip is EXACTLY the same plant as cultivated parsnip. Absolutely no difference! Therefore, you must be equally careful not to get the sap of the broken garden plant on your skin when in the sunlight.
This also means however, that yes! you can dig the roots of wild parsnip, and you will find yourself delicious tap roots, ready to be cooked and enjoyed, just as you would garden parnsip roots! The only difference is that the wild parsnips may be a bit smaller than garden parsnip because they often grow in compacted, uncultivated soil. However, it is of course only the sap in the above-ground portion of the plant that can cause burning, and only when touching the skin in bright sunlight. The root is entirely safe to touch, slice and eat.
…And if wild parsnip is an invasive plant whose proliferation we want to prevent, what better way to do this than by digging up its roots and eating them?
Roots are harvested with best results from first-year plants. Parsnip is a biennial plant. In its second year, it shoots up its yellow flowering stalk and sets seeds, making the roots woodier and less desirable to eat. But in its first year, it grows only leaves right up out of the root in the ground, and does not develop a flowering stalk. At this first-year stage, the root is rich, juicy and full of nutrients. When harvested, it will be tender and delicious.
If you enjoy eating wild parsnip roots, you may also want to collect some of the seeds off wild plants in the fall, and plant them in your garden. They will produce parsnip plants, just like the ones we grow in our gardens. If you do this, you will also be helping to prevent the wild proliferation of parsnip, while planting it somewhere from which the roots can be harvested in the plant’s first year, before it goes to seed. You see, parnsip is so efficient at growing and spreading its seeds that our cultivated parsnip easily escapes cultivation. It has been seeding itself all over the place in abundance, and becoming deemed “invasive” in the process.
Another important point about these “invasive plants” however is that they not only provide us with large quantities of edible roots, they also seem to be providing an important food source to many of our key pollinators.
In addition to the pollinators caught here on camera, I found three different kinds of bees all over the flowering parsnips in our field a couple weeks ago. I wish I’d photographed that!
In my opinion, wild parsnip has much to offer us, despite its potential for causing burns to the skin, and despite the fact that it was not already growing here when the European colonists arrived in North America. If we call wild parsnip invasive, we must keep in mind that many of the plants we find around here are invasive as well–but if we’re crafty about it, we can make use of them as food and medicine. Some examples are dandelion, chicory, wild carrot (a cousin of parsnip), burdock, plantain and many of our clovers.
With that in mind, I should note that one of our native plants that grows in great abundance around here is also very damaging to the skin–poison ivy. It too has a role to play in our ecosystem and it has been growing here much longer than we have. However, it is paramount for us to be able to identify poison ivy if we don’t want to get a rash from touching it.
It can be said that plants like poision ivy and wild parsnip have something important to teach us. They help us to remember the importance of being aware, and paying attention to our environment. We must be attuned to where the poison ivy is, and be careful not to touch it. Similarly, we must recognize wild parsnip, and avoid touching our skin to its broken leaves or stems when out in the sunlight (NB: this means also being aware of touching freshly-mowed parsnip that is still bleeding its sap).
The necessity for this awareness helps to keep us grounded in the present moment, instead of being caught up in screen time or human thought meanderings. The presence of these plants helps us to remember, and appreciate where we are as we move through nature and the cycles of the seasons.