Pretty Poison

A walk through a lovely meadow can quickly turn painful if you unwittingly brush against certain plants. Many of us learned to recognize poison ivy and poison oak by the admonition, “Leaves of three, leave it be.” But wild parsnip is another one to watch out for.

Wild parsnip, growing in a meadow.

A walk through a lovely meadow can quickly turn painful if you unwittingly brush against certain plants. Many of us learned to recognize poison ivy and poison oak by the admonition, “Leaves of three, leave it be.” But wild parsnip is another one to watch out for.

Queen Anne’s lace, also known as wild carrot, is often confused with wild parsnip.

A few years ago I was growing flowers for a friend’s wedding and, scanning the roadsides for wildflowers to round out my bouquets, came across a Queen Anne’s lace lookalike with chartreuse yellow flowers. Perfect, I thought, making a mental note of the location. Imagine my surprise when the following morning’s newspaper had a photo of the flowers with a stern warning to steer clear of them. They were wild parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) and sap from their leaves and stems can cause burns worse than any poison ivy rash.

If you get wild parsnip sap on your skin then expose the skin to sunlight, you may end up with blisters that resemble second-degree burns. This plant-and-sun rash is called phytophotodermatitis (phyto=plant, photo=light) and it can result in skin damage so severe as to cause permanent scarring and discoloration. Get some of the sap in your eyes and it can cause blindness. You won’t know right away that you’ve been exposed; symptoms usually begin about 24 hours after exposure and peak in two or three days.

Eliminating the Plants

Share Your Photos

Help us create a photo album of “plants that hurt” to warn gardeners about plants to avoid. Post photos of plants on our Facebook wall, along with the name of the plant and where you took the photo. Include images of poison ivy and other familiar culprits, too, because their appearance varies depending on the time of year and climate.

If you come across any of these plants in the wild, stay away. If you find them in your garden, you’ll want to eradicate them. If the infestation is limited you can keep them in check by repeatedly cutting the plants back to at or below ground level. Wear protective clothing to do this. You can also spot treat the plants with an herbicide, such as Burnout.

Whatever you do, don’t use a string trimmer, which will send sap-oozing bits of plant flying — some undoubtedly landing on bare skin.

I still shudder to think of what would have happened if I had used those flowers in the bouquets at my friend’s sunny outdoor wedding. I’m just thankful I saw that newspaper article warning of the dangers of the plant. In the spirit of paying it forward, here’s your warning!



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14 Responses to Pretty Poison

  1. Anonymous says:

    But does it have a parsnip under the soil worth eating?

  2. Yes, the long, thick taproot is edible. More about wild parsnip here:

  3. Anonymous says:

    I haven't documented it but I'm pretty sure I've touched that in the past and not gotten any rashes. Do Queen Anne's Lace flower start off yellow before turning white?

    I've heard that some people are immune to poison ivy/oak. Is that also possible with wild parsnip? (Note: I am NOT one of those who are immune to poison ivy/oak.)

    I've heard Queen Anne's Lace called wild carrot. Is this true?

  4. The rash comes from the sap in the plant, so lightly brushing the leaves is not likely to cause problems.

    Yes, Queen Anne's lace is sometimes called wild carrot. To be clear, the botanical name of the plant we're referring to is Daucus carota. More information:

  5. D Michaels says:

    Is wild parsnip (I've heard it called “Poison Parsnip” usually lately) new to the area or is it native? I grew up in the area and learned about poison ivy/oak but only last year first heard or noticed poison parsnip – now it seems to be everywhere! Is it just a matter of noticing something and then you see it everywhere or is this new to the area? And, is it pushing out the Queen Anne's Lace plants?

  6. The plant comes from Europe and Asia, and it has indeed been spreading more rapidly in recent years. It's not a new arrival though; the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has found records of this plant in the state from as early as 1894:

  7. Rachel says:

    My son was exposed to this plant when he was helping clear some brush. It was a hot, sunny day, and the combination of his sweat and the sunlight caused a reaction to the toxins in the plant. The following year, when he was out in the sun, the rash reappeared without any new exposure to the plant. He has scars which persist 3 years later. This plant, like Queen Anne's Lace and Parsley, is a biennial. However, its seeds can live for several years. Unless you are very vigilant, it's a difficult plant to get rid of.

  8. Rachel says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. LadyFville says:

    WARNING: this plant is also called HOGWEED and there is currently a government grant being implemented to eradicate it in New York State – contact your local DEC office if you locate plants in your area!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    hogweed and wild parsnip are two different plants. Hog weed definitely burns the skin but I've never heard of parsnip doing the same. Are we getting the two confused?

  11. The NY State Dept. of Transportation has a web page called “Dangerous Plants” with photos and descriptions of giant hogweed, cow parsnip and wild parsnip:

  12. Paul says:

    It almost looks like golden rod.

  13. Karen says:

    Here in Western New York, all of the publicity I've seen has called it “giant hogweed” and it's definitely the same plant. Around here, they can also appear with white or whitish flowers, so that they look a lot like a gigantic Queen Anne's Lace. I had the misfortune to pull one of them out of my flower bed a few years ago. I was wearing gloves but I still got a severe rash on my arms with burn-like blisters. Very nasty!

  14. Daryle says:

    The root of wild parsnip is very edible. Do not attempt to harvest it until a few killing frosts tenderize the root. The stem is still dangerous for most people to touch, harvest carefully. It should be noted that the stem and leaves from domestic parsnip can also burn some people. Steam or parboil roots until tender and saute in butter until nicely browned.

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