July 21st, 2008
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.
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.
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.