Sunday, July 11, 2010

Parsnip Pox

Though as a child I did suffer from the idiosyncrasies of taste common to most of us in our formative years - mushrooms, of course, offended my palate, as did most fruits for textural reasons (a crisp, ripe apple being the exception) - I nevertheless loved vegetables. I recall reading a study few years back which determined that children who prefer salty snacks such as pretzels to sweet snacks like cookies are more amenable to the idea of eating vegetables but less likely to eat fruits than peers who reach for the Oreos, this latter group showing the opposite preference, and my tastes largely supported this finding. Given my current dietary view, I would now question these stark categories of salty and sweet and thus the study itself, since the sugars in pretzels are only marginally less refined than those in cookies. Anyhow, what I am working around to is that, whatever the underlying cause and whatever the relationship between my real food and junk food preferences, I have always liked parsnips.

In the produce aisle parsnips look like beige carrots. Like carrots they are beinnial, meaning in the first year of life they have a relatively innocuous growth habit, and all surplus energy is used to create a large taproot. This taproot, harvested after sufficient growth in the first year, is the form in which they are most commonly eaten. If allowed to remain in the ground, or, in the case of more tender varietals in harsher climates, assisted by various means I won't detail, in the second year the plant will bolt a towering flower stock, set seed, and die in the fall.

Alanna and I first noticed parsnips after the snow had melted, when we kept stubbing our toes on their tops in the area beside the hops barn. They were shouldering up out of the ground as dense as checkers on a checkerboard. Wild parsnips, unlike wild carrots, are virtually indistinguishable from their domestic counterparts, meaning we could have dug these up and roasted them, which, as previously established, I would have enjoyed. But we had not seen the leaves or flowers of the plants and thus were put off by the admittedly slight chance that the tubers were actually poison hemlock, though this fear has been validated to some extent by a few instances of this plant further upstream. (This is not related to the hemlock tree, of which we have many. The plant that poisoned Socrates resembles a parsnip in its odor, roots and leaves, but less in its flowers.)

As spring progressed into summer the parsnips grew stalks topped with yellow bursts of tiny flowers, some seven feet tall. In addition to the large stand next to the hops barn, numerous individuals and groups shot up on the fringes of the driveway, throughout the pastures, and in a near continuous band around the perimeter of the large barn.

When I was learning to distinguish the parsnip from its deadly doppelganger I learned much about it, but the most common point of interest was that the sap from the vegetative portions of a parsnip can cause phytophotodermatitis, meaning that when sunlight hits an area of skin that has the sap on it, holy hell breaks out.

So it was idiocy unmitigated even by ignorance when I went after it with a weedwacker a few days ago and thought nothing of the plant matter sprayed up and down my arms. The blisters should subside quickly, but the discoloration could last for months or longer.



  1. I'm blessed to know a lot of interesting characters, Garth, but you are the only one I'd ever expect to find himself covered in parsnip blisters. Hope they aren't as uncomfortable as they look.

  2. hmmmm, its sounds as if the good-evil dichomoty between parsnip and its nemesis, poison hemlock, is not so very clear. Perhaps poison hemlock has its own character flaw, blemishing its thoroughly evil nature with a friendly trait which mirrors the nasty side effect of your beloved parsnip.
    Thanks for the education and pictures.

  3. that was one of the first lessons we learned when we moved to upstate NY. We all had these horrible blisters and knew not what caused them. We finally found out the culprit. My first scars lasted 2 years!!! They are the worst in this weather when your pores are open and sweaty. After they go to seed, they are not as bad. They are a nasty non native invasive..though the first years are delicious in the early spring, but get pretty woody after that. Sorry you had to experiece that! Everyone up here weed whacks with long sleeves and pants.

  4. They actually don't hurt very much. They are sensitive, but they don't itch. Ed think that judiciously applied parsnip sap could be a component of a tremendous halloween costume.

    I can't think of anything particularly redeeming about poison hemlock, though wikipedia says it used to be used medicinally in small doses.

    I hope to take my revenge by eating lots of them.

  5. I'd say that you should roast them, but I hear revenge is a dish best served cold...

  6. Dude, this is pretty rad. Its not rad that it happened to YOU. But its rad that this story can be told in general.

  7. Yes, I learned about this nasty invasive the hard way too. You can get the best of it, but not with a weed wacker.
    My husband and I (suited up as if if dealing with a biohazard -- which it certainly is) brush mowed the thickest parts and now we can walk through and scythe the individual plants. But we always carry a pack of wet wipe stuff with us and if we have any sense that we may have gotten sap on us, we clean that area immediately.
    check out my recent post on our friend

    happy hunting,

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  10. I like the Halloween idea especially with some dayglo paint. Unfortunatly it looks like it mught be with you until Christmas

  11. 'I have always liked parsnips' I like that line. I didn't see it coming, I think that was the main factor here

  12. The parsnip juices cause photo-sensitivity, so technically if you weed wacked wild parsnip and then never went in the sun again you would be spared.
    I learned about this one the hard way...with Tavia and crew...I only had a speck, but the welts on Wade and, Jeremy, and Tavia were enough of a lesson for me.
    None of us knew what hit us...botanical? Months later an herbalist in Ithaca enlightened me, and I was happy to know what to avoid.