The fuss about Wild Parsnip: real or imagined?
There has been a lot of confusing information concerning the proliferation of wild parsnip in the Outaouais and Ottawa. On August 13, the Ottawa Citizen published a story downplaying the danger of this invasive European plant.
Environmental consultant Dan Brunton claims Ottawa’s $100,000 spraying campaign is “a waste of money. This stuff has been abundant in the Ottawa Valley for over a century without a significant problem.”
I have absolutely the utmost respect for Dan Brunton. However, I disagree with him because I think it poses a serious problem. Throughout Pontiac, some ditches and unworked fields are full of it.
Municipality of Pontiac’s efforts
Dominic Labrie is this Municipality’s communications officer. After asking what is being done, he e-mailed: “Even if this plant has been around for 100 years, it is getting more attention recently. We have received some (4-5) complaints about it.” Referring to this Ottawa Citizen article, he added, “Apparently, the scientific community doesn’t agree on how municipalities should react to it.”
Labrie continued, “Currently, we are talking with other municipalities in order to identify best practices to face this issue. In the meantime, we are targeting problem sectors when cutting grass on road sides. We are also paying special attention to strategic sectors (schools, parks, etc.).”
Wild parsnip toxicity
The Government of Canada’s Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility website maintains the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System (cbif.gc.ca). Regarding wild parsnip: “Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a cultivated and a naturalized herb in much of Canada. The plant juices can cause photodermatitis in some individuals after exposure to sunlight. Exposure to leaves, stems, and peeling roots can cause the problem. The edible roots contain enough furocoumarins to be physiologically active in some cases. These toxins are mutagenic (even in the dark) inducing melanization in human skin. Photodermatitis from this plant is often confused with poison-ivy dermatitis (Mitchell and Rook 1979, Ivie et al. 1981).”
My first introduction to its toxicity was in 1990. A reader had to go to hospital after trying to eliminate wild parsnip growing in ditches alongside her Bristol farm. She called to implore me to inform others about the itching, weeping burns: I wrote a warning about it then – so this column is “full circle.”
In July, a friend used a weed-whipper to control it while wearing shorts and flip-flops. Juices splashed on his bare legs created horrid, sore burns. After several weeks, his legs still sport dark-chocolate splash marks.
The plant is biennial. Spraying mature second-year seeding plants now won’t be effective as far as I know as this is their final year. Instead, I’d remove their seed heads, taking care to be fully covered, wearing safety goggles and gloves. I suggest putting them in the garbage. Spraying the ground-level leaves of this year’s first growth should be effective and hopefully would kill the plant. Hard to find and spray them, however, amid tall grasses and plants like goldenrod.
When and what to spray is an extremely difficult, environmentally-sensitive issue. Please don’t forget: chemicals are often pervasive in the environment, just like neonicotinoids are proving to be. Although we may not eradicate this successful invasive species, I believe it is prudent to do what we can to control it.
Meanwhile, what do we ask landowners to do, whose fields are full of wild parsnip?
Contact Katharine at firstname.lastname@example.org
and visit her at katharinefletcher.com