Do Not Touch This Plant!
Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is an invasive plant from Europe and Asia that has become naturalized in North America. It is well suited for colonizing disturbed areas but can also be found in open fields and lawns. Wild parsnip sap can cause painful, localized burning and blistering of the skin.
Wild parsnip can grow up to 5′ tall and has hollow, grooved stems that are hairless. Leaves resemble large celery leaves. They are yellow-green, coarsely toothed and compound, with 3-5 leaflets. Small, yellow flowers are clustered together in a flat-topped array approximately 3-8″ across. Flowering usually occurs during the second year of growth, starting in May or June and lasting for 1-2 months. Seeds are flat, brown, and slightly winged to facilitate wind dispersal in the fall.
Where is wild parsnip located?
Wild parsnip can be found growing in a broad range of habitats, especially along roadsides, in fields and in pastures. It is common in the United States and Canada and is widespread in New York. DEC encourages the public to report sightings of this invasive plant to iMapInvasives (leaves DEC website).
Why is wild parsnip dangerous?
Wild parsnip sap contains chemicals called furanocoumarins which can make skin more vulnerable to ultraviolet light. Brushing against or breaking the plant releases sap that, combined with sunlight, can cause a severe burn within 24 to 48 hours. This reaction, known as phytophotodermatitis, can also cause discoloration of the skin and increased sensitivity to sunlight that may last for years.
How to protect yourself from wild parsnip:
- Learn to identify wild parsnip at different life stages.
- Do not touch any parts of the plant with bare skin.
- Wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants, boots and eye protection if working near wild parsnip to prevent skin contact with the sap. Synthetic, water-resistant materials are recommended.
If contact with sap occurs…
- Wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water, and keep it covered for at least 48 hours to prevent a reaction.
- If a reaction occurs, keep the affected area out of sunlight to prevent further burning or discoloration, and see a physician.
What can be done about wild parsnip?
Prevent establishment and spread
It is important to remove new infestations while they are still small and not well established. When using equipment where wild parsnip is present, make sure to clean it thoroughly before using it again in an area that is parsnip-free. Avoid areas where seed is present to prevent its accidental spread on clothing and equipment.
Control and management
Manual removal of plants can be effective for small areas. Cutting roots 1-2″ below the soil or pulling plants by hand should be done before they have gone to seed. If removing plants after seeds have already developed, cut off the seed heads and put them in plastic bags. Leave the bags out in the sun for one week to kill the seed heads before disposal. Mowing wild parsnip after flowers have bloomed but before seeds have developed can kill the plants. Some plants may re-sprout, making it necessary to mow the area again. General herbicides can be applied as spot treatments to new shoots.
Report an infestation
If you believe you have found wild parsnip…
- Take a picture of the entire plant and close-ups of the leaf, flower and/or seed.
- Note the location (intersecting roads, landmarks or GPS coordinates).
- Report the infestation to iMapInvasives (leaves DEC website
Lifecycle: Biennial, reproducing by seed.
Identification: Stem is somewhat hairy, grooved, and two to five feet tall. Leaves are course, with saw-toothed edges. Flowers are yellow and arranged in an umbrella shape; appearance is somewhat like the ornamental Queen Anne’s Lace.
Distribution: Found throughout the United States.
Habitat: Found in fields and roadsides, and occasionally in wet pastures.
Control: Several herbicides exist that provide adequate control of wild parsnip. However, repeated applications may be needed for control. Most weeds are better controlled by herbicides when they are small. Larger plants may need to be removed by hand pulling, as stems become woody and adequate control with mowers and herbicides will be difficult. If controlling wild parsnip by hand, be sure to wear gloves and protective clothing, as contact with wild parsnip can cause severe blistering of the skin. When using a herbicide, be sure to follow all grazing restrictions and other pertinent information stated on the herbicide label.
Toxin: Wild parsnip may contain chemicals called furanocoumarins.
When Toxic: All growth stages of the plant, when eaten fresh or dried in hay. High concentrations of furanocoumarins have been founds in the seeds as well.
Toxicity: The toxic dose of wild parsnip is not known. The toxic dose of other plants known to accumulate furanocoumarins has not been established either.
Signs and Effects of Toxicosis: Severe sunburn (photosensitivity) occurs in people and animals ingesting furanocoumarins if they are exposed to UV light after ingestion. Sunburn occurs after ingestion due to the furanocoumarin circulation in the blood vessels just below the skin. The UV light exposure is almost always from the sun. Severe sunburn occurs on the white or other light skinned areas, but not the black, brown, or other dark skinned areas, because melanin in the dark skin absorbs the UV light and prevents it from reacting with the furanocoumarins. Consequently, severe sunburn in livestock ingesting furanocoumarin-containing plants is reduced if the livestock are shaded from the ultraviolet sunlight.
Treatment: Remove the plant source. Move animals to an area where shade is available. Topical treatments can be used for the skin lesions.