Working with Wild Parsnip

Taming Parsnip
In 2017 and 2018, Friends of Lanark County volunteers manually removed parsnip and saved all flowering plants from herbicide spraying along 60 lane kilometers of roadways under Lanark County’s Adopt-A-Road program. The following reflects their collective knowledge and experience.

What is wild parsnip?

Wild Parsnip is a version of the garden vegetable, brought from Europe hundreds of years ago. Parsnip likes to grow in sunny locations, in bare soil along roadways. In its first year, parsnip grows a cluster of leaves radiating out from its centre, and down below it grows a taproot. In its second summer, parsnip sends up a tall, hollow stalk with clusters of bright yellow flowers that look like tiny umbrellas. These flowers mature into seeds that remain viable for several years.

Why is there so much hype about this plant?

The main concern is that if sap from this plant comes into contact with skin, and is then exposed to sunlight, a chemical reaction can result in a mild or severe burn or rash, and sometimes blisters. In rare instances the skin damage may persist.

Do I need to be afraid of it?

No. It is fairly easy to protect yourself from parsnip sap. Learn to recognize what this plant looks like so that you can avoid it. Unlike with poison ivy that causes skin rash from oil on the surface of the ivy, parsnip plants must be broken to expose the sap. If you wash the parsnip sap off with soap and cold water as soon as possible and avoid exposure to sunlight for 48 hours, you can avoid the rash.

How do I protect myself when I remove parsnip from my yard or roadway?

If you want to remove parsnip, wear long sleeves and pants, gloves and eye protection. The sap washes off easily, so having water with you while you work is recommended. Wash everything thoroughly afterwards and take a shower. Some people prefer to pull parsnip in the evening or on a cloudy day. If your skin is well covered and you do not break the stock or crush the leaves or flowers, it is unlikely that any sap will get on you.

How can I manage it safely?

Parsnip plants can be pulled, tarped, mowed or clipped. Plants should be removed before the flowers go to seed. As new flowers bloom from mid-June to September or October, repeated clipping or mowing will be needed. Pulling is easiest in the second year of growth when the flower stalks are forming. At this time, the root is actually shrinks and loosens up as it sends its nutrients up the flower stalk. Once the root is pulled, it will not come back. After using your equipment, be sure to wash it in soapy water.

Is the root easy to pull?

The root is relatively easy to pull out of the ground, especially after a rain, during a drought, and during the second year as the plant flowers and the root shrinks. Dig around the base of the plant with a spade and pull out as much of the taproot as possible. It is just like pulling a long carrot, which happens to be one of its relatives.

What about cutting the plant?

You can cut the root just below ground level with a sharp spade or knife. Another option is to snip off the flowers with clippers to prevent them from producing seeds, but this will need to be repeated several times as new flower stalks and flowers will grow over the summer. Whipper-snipping is not recommended because the sap flings out everywhere, and that is what you are trying to avoid.

What do I do with the pulled or snipped parsnip?

If you are working on your road frontage, find out from your municipality how to properly dispose of the plants. First year plants (ones without flowers or seeds) may be composted in a pile heavily covered with soil.

What’s the problem with spraying?

Roadside spraying kills all kinds of broadleaf plants, not just parsnip. All these plant species provide food for bees, butterflies and other insects and these insects are at the base of a food chain that ends with us. Repeated spraying of herbicides can create resistant plants.

In our opinion, herbicide mixtures have not been sufficiently evaluated in terms of environmental and human safety. Pesticides do not stay where they are applied and can spread through water systems, soil and air.

Prepared by Friends of Lanark County

Friends of Lanark County is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims all liability for, damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on any information contained in this flyer.

April, 2019