From a Hearty Meal to a Pesky Weed

Wild Parsnip

This plant started blooming in sunny fields in May, but it is a summer plant, and is now increasing in numbers.  It is quite distinctive looking, and often grows in colonies.

Notice the flat-topped flower heads, thick grooved stem, and divided (pinnate) leaves.

These flower heads are called umbels, which are a collection of short stems forming a head of numerous small blooms.

This plant is Wild Parsnip, a member of the Carrot family, and like some of the other widespread plant species in North America, it is an aggressive invasive species introduced from Eurasia.  As a matter of fact, it was brought over by settlers of the Jamestown Colony in 1609 and spread through the wild from there.  It was a significant source of vegetables in the early American diet; in the autumn, one can dig up the carrot-like roots (parsnips) and prepare them in various ways.  This wild form of parsnip varies in palatability compared to the cultivated variety.

Be careful if you go digging them up, however, or you could get parsnip rash, otherwise known as phytophotodermatitis (how’s that for a mouthful?).  Juices from the plant in combination with sunlight can burn your skin.  The discomfort caused will soon fade away, but the skin discoloration can occasionally be long-lasting.  Nobody wants that!

Wild Parsnip is partial to sunny areas, and can be seen in fields, waste areas and along roadsides.  A wide range of insects are attracted to its nectar.  It is often considered a pest by landowners, even if it is a (marginal) food source.  It’s funny to think on this plant’s descent from old-fashioned homemade victual to modern detested weed.  Times do change.