I first walked my land on Labor Day Weekend 2004. I was responding with a pounding heart to the topographical nuance of a protected hollow where a ravine and another, wider valley meet under a big bowl of sky. I was already bonding to the rows of toddler pine, spruce and oak that I had instantly taken under my wing. The seller had just mowed between them so they would look promising, rather than lost in the grass. I barely noticed the tall dried stalks filling the gaps between each tree or the thick stubble between the rows.
If I had known that much of that stubble was the harmless remains of Wild Parsnip, would it have made any difference? Probably not. I was in love with that land. The honeymoon lasted till the next summer when just about every square foot of the 44 acres that wasn’t heavily shaded under mature trees – more than half – had burst forth in a fresh and flourishing crop of Wild Parsnip. It was as if someone you thought was sweet and gentle suddenly snarls and bears their teeth at you.
You’ve seen Wild Parsnip from your car window. It grows in drifts along the roadside just about everywhere. Its numbers have exploded in Wisconsin, probably because the seeds are spread by roadside mowing in late July and August when it goes to seed. Wild Parsnip is a member of the carrot family. It’s easy to recognize because it resembles its cousin, Queen Ann’s Lace, but its big, flat flower is greenish yellow instead of white.
DON”T try to gather a bouquet! This stuff is armed and dangerous. There’s something in its sap called psoralen, which is a photo carcinogen. That means it has a destructive effect on DNA when exposed to sunlight. Psoralen was actually used as a tanning activator in sunscreens until 1996. (Some people suffered severe skin loss after sunbathing with psoralen-containing tanning activators according to an article in Nature. People with lighter skin color are more prone to this damage.
According to Jerry Doll, in WeedScience, University of Wisconsin, when psoralen gets on, and then into your skin, it is activated by uv light (on both sunny and cloudy days). In this excited state, it binds to DNA and cell membranes, destroying cells and skin.
Psoralen takes a day or two to do its damage. A mild case turns skin red and feels like sunburn, or in the worst case, you will feel like you have been scalded, develop blisters and will be left wearing dark red patches on your skin that won’t totally fade away for a year or more. (I live in constant fear during Parsnip Season that I am going to get some on my face without realizing it.)
Staying out of the countryside won’t necessarily protect you. For a horror story about an urban gardener’s run in with the stuff, click here. I need to add that just brushing against the plant won’t burn you. You have to crush or cut it and get the sap on you. Click here to learn about treatment.
So, of all the invasives – and the list is long – that I am working to minimize, Wild Parsnip heads the list. We have a Zero Tolerance Zone that originally covered the whole place, but reality has whittled it down a bit. During the last days of June and the first days of July, removing Wild Parsnip is our prime directive. With arms and legs covered and wet wipes at the ready, we have been following the guidelines to eradicate it. You need to cut it after it flowers but before it goes to seed. Because of its carrot affiliations, it has a lot of energy stored in a big tap root, so it can send up another stalk and flower again. Beating it takes repeat cuttings and true diligence. This year at last, we are stating to see a lot less of the stuff in all the areas we have declared Zero Tolerance.
At first, we mowed it out between the rows of trees with our walk-behind DR Brush Mower (This thing really works. We got ours here. ) and followed up with scythe work, one plant at a time. (American-made scythes don’t work. We found good ones here. )
Now, facing fewer foe all we need to do is scythe, and that we do with gusto. A good scythe is a beautiful instrument. You can hook the tip of the blade around a parsnip stalk growing next to a cone flower. Goodbye, parsnip. Carry on, cone flower! Since we started our acre-and-a half of prairie restoration we have walked it with scythes in hand multiple times each summer, cutting out every Wild Parsnip we see.
Last week, we walked out into the prairie to find very little parsnip to snip. What a joy! After the five years and countless hours that we have spent in this campaign, covered in full-protective clothing on sweltering hot summer days, – we seem to be gaining ground. That is energizing. I feel almost as excited as a photoactivated carcinogen exposed to sunlight.
My next post on Tuesday will be about a practical resource — The Midwest Renewable energy Association.
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