The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Dangerous parsnips

July 21st, 2008

Parsnip flowersParsnip leaves

I finally unravelled a mystery that had me baffled for 20 years.

Our winters are very long, and in general, we don’t get a lot of sun. This makes me crave the feeling of the sun shining on my bare skin. When it wasn’t winter or “bug season” (which comes fairly soon after “mud season”) I’d often work outside in shorts. I had to abandon this habit, though, when one season I started getting mysterious small burns on my legs that would leave scars for at least a year. I knew it was not poison ivy nor stinging nettles, but could not figure out what it could be. The best guess I could come up with was that it was from handling hot grass clippings when making compost. Since I was not really sure exactly what the cause was, I resigned myself to always wearing long jeans and socks for any kind of yardwork.

Parsnip plants in situ

Yesterday a local newsite had a blurb about “nasty plants,” and of course, how could I not click on that? And there it was – beware wild parsnips, with an exact description of my mysterious burns. The thing is, contrary to this article and all the further info I found on the web, I know that “wild” parsnips and “garden” parsnips are the same creatures, pastinaca sativa. I had been growing parsnips and parsnip seed, and there were escapees from the gardens proper, which was fine with me, as long as they didn’t get too rowdy.

The plants are not a threat unless you cut into the green parts and get the juice on your skin. Beyond our lawn and garden area, we have little meadows that I scythe once or twice a year, and use the cuttings for making compost. The parsnips have a healthy colony in one of them, though I have generally made it a point to mow them down when they’re in flower… and this is how I was getting burned.

Parsnip burn

The reason it was so hard to figure this out is that there is no immediate effect when you get the juice on your skin. But, if the skin is exposed to the sun, the burning starts to happen about a day later, and the skin will actually blister. If you got a lot of the stuff on your skin, you could have some pretty serious and painful burns. The scars can last 2 years.

We have occasionally also eaten very small quantities of parsnip greens in spring, but we’re rethinking that in light of this new information. Parsnip’s appeal as a green is not all that great, anyway. The root is nice for the winter larder, but I will be handling these volunteers far more carefully in their green state.

Here’s a good article about “wild” parsnips.

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8 Responses to “Dangerous parsnips”

  1. mrsgreenhands says:

    Wow – thanks for the info! I also grow parnsips, so it’s nice to know this tidbit of info.

  2. ottawa gardener says:

    I heard this too which is why I am nervous about encouraging a semi-wild population of parsnip. I wonder if this only really occurs in the second year as I have often yanked up first year old roots for storage in our cold cellar.

  3. the extreme gardener says:

    That’s a good question. It’s possible that the toxin is mainly in the seed stalk and not so much in the leaves; or that at the time the roots are harvested it’s cold enough so one is not likely to have much skin exposed. Also, if you did get the green juice on your skin at root harvest time, the odds of exposing the skin to sunlight the next day (October-November) are pretty low, at least around here. It’s not an experiment I’m keen to do. Anybody know for sure….?
    If my outdoor space was more constrained, I think I might not want to have them around. It could be a problem if you have people hanging out in the summer in close proximity – kids playing with them, etc. That said, you can brush against the plants with no problem. It’s just when they’re cut/mowed that the toxic juice is released.

  4. Alan Reed Bishop says:

    Thank you so very much for this information, this really does explain a lot about what caused some of the scaring on my legs. As a gardener/farmer I have resigned myself to knowing that I shouldn’t be wearing shorts in the garden, but now I know what to watch out for!

  5. the extreme gardener says:

    Welcome Alan! I think I’m getting addicted to your wonderful gardeners forum at Bishop’s Homegrown.

  6. Az Gardener says:

    So are parsnip greens toxic?

  7. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Az Gardener!
    I don’t know for sure. I have have eaten them in small quantities in salads with no noticeable immediate ill effects. But now, knowing that they are the cause of the very significant skin burns I have experienced, I question the wisdom of eating the greens at all. Even though there would be no light to trigger the chemical burn once you’ve eaten the greens, who knows what the long term effects could be. It’s a powerful substance.
    At the time they’re at a suitable salad/greens stage (May/early June here) there are lots of other greens available that are more enticing to my palate, so, personally, I’m going to pass up the parsnip greens from now on.

  8. matt says:

    This absolutely confirms the cuts and blisters I have had recently, I had thinned out my parsnips and about 24 hours later I spotted some soar areas on the underneath of my right arm. In the following 24 hours these soars turned into cuts and blisters that were quite uncomfortable. It was a bit of a mystery how I had got them, it was either the courgette leaves that are very rough which are right next to my parsnips or the parsnips themselves but thinking that it was more likely to be the courgette leaves. So thanks for confirming this, I’ll be more careful when I’m thinning out the parsnips.

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