Wild Parsnip: is this the one we are all supposed to be freaking out about?



Kate Aley

In short, no.

The massive invasive toxic weed we are supposed to fear and loathe is Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).Originally from eastern Europe and imported as a decorative garden accent, if you can believe it, Giant Hogweed grows to about five meters tall and is filled with noxious sap that burns skin deeply.

However, Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) (the yellow-flowered one here, seen with white-flowered Queen Anne's Lace and other stuff) is no mild-mannered maiden either. Contact with the sap also causes severe skin irritation, especially if you are mowing the stuff while wearing shorts.

This is how the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit describes it:

"Wild Parsnip plants have chemicals called psoralens (more precisely, furocoumarins) that cause phyto-photodermatitis: an interaction between plants (phyto) and light (photo) that induce skin (derm) inflammation (itis).  Once the furocoumarins are absorbed by the skin, they are energized by UV light on both sunny and cloudy days. They then bind to DNA and cell membranes, destroying cells and skin. Wild Parsnip burns usually occur in streaks and elongated spots, reflecting where a damaged leaf or stem moved across the skin before exposure to sunlight. If the sap gets into the eyes, it may cause temporary or permanent blindness."

So that is bad, right?

Wild Parsnip, also invasive, also from Europe, is again bountiful in ditches and along roadsides this year. You can get rid of it but it's a complicated process. Putting on three pairs of leather trousers is the first step, I think.

The jury still seems to be out on whether Giant Hogweed has ever been officially identified in this area. I did see a very tall nasty-looking plant on the side of the 148 in Clarendon last year. I can assure you every inch of it screamed: "DON'T TOUCH". If you have ever read John Wyndham's terrifying novel Day of the Triffids, you'll agree that this is probably what the triffids looked like.