ADDISON COUNTY — Michael O’Neill had a run-in with a colorful but noxious weed last summer when he saw the plant and, out of curiosity, smelled and touched its tall, green stems and yellow blossoms. Unfortunately, the Shoreham man suffered an adverse reaction — itching and mildly blistering skin — but it was not bad enough for him to seek medical help for the condition.
Earlier this summer, however, O’Neill accidentally brushed his hand across one of the plants and this time suffered severe blistering.
“It’s 10 times worse than poison ivy because it burns, it doesn’t just itch,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill has learned the dangers of the wild parsnip, which this summer is growing in fields and springing up along the highways of Vermont. Those who come into contact with the plant’s juices may experience burns and blisters like O’Neill did.
Wild parsnip, also known by its Latin name, pastinaca sativa, is an invasive plant which is most easily identified by its flowers, which resemble Queen Anne’s lace but are yellow. Like Queen Anne’s lace, it is a member of the carrot family, and boasts an edible root.
“It’s fairly widespread along roadsides,” said Tim Schmalz, the invasive plant coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “It’s been around longer than people realize.”
According to Sharon Plumb, invasive species coordinator at the Vermont branch of the Nature Conservancy, wild parsnip plants can grow anywhere, but they are most commonly found in fields and along highways.
“It’s a tough invasive,” she said. “It’s one of my least favorite things to deal with, because it spreads so prolifically.”
Even so, awareness of the plant and its noxious qualities is not universal. Many people are unaware of its effects or estimate them to be much less severe than poison ivy. However, reactions to the plant can range from less severe than poison ivy to a much more severe burning and discoloration of the skin.
When the stem of a wild parsnip plant is cut or bruised it releases juices that cause burns and blistering. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the substance increases the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, which can then increase the severity of the reaction.
The Forest Service recommends removal of the plant at its roots, since the plant will regrow after surface mowing or burning. When removing the plant, they counsel covering exposed skin, especially wearing long sleeves and gloves.
Schmalz said that the Agency of Agriculture is aware of wild parsnip’s presence, but currently does not have the resources to try and control it — there are many other plants on the noxious weed list, and the agency’s budget is tight right now.
“It’s simply not feasible at this point to go after every single invasive plant in a scattershot way,” he said.
Some professionals are taking this year’s wild parsnip problem in stride.
Yvon Pouliot, grounds supervisor for the Middlebury Parks and Recreation Department, was not terribly worried by wild parsnip. He has not seen it as much along the roads this year as in some past years, but he has seen some at the parks and taken care to dig the plants out down to their roots.
“I get more of a reaction to poison ivy,” Pouliot said. “But when I (remove wild parsnip) I wear gloves.”
For information on removal and control of wild parsnip, talk to the UVM Extension Master Gardeners at 1-800-639-2230, or call the Vermont Nature Conservancy at (802) 229-4425.