Hunting the Wild Parsnip

Have you ever gone on a hike, only to later discover an angry blister on your ankle? If the blister transformed into a dark purple blotch, chances are you came into contact with wild parsnip. The discoloration can last for a year or longer—probably not the kind of memento you want from a carefree trek in the countryside. Wild parsnip was once domesticated, but it escaped cultivation and now is a familiar sight along our mountain roadways. In its first year, the plant forms a rosette of leaves and a tasty taproot. It’s difficult to identify at that early stage. In its second year, the parsnip produces a 5-foot stem topped with small yellow flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters. In this easily identifiable stage, the taproot has become tough and inedible. Can you harvest wild parsnip as food that first year? You certainly could, but it would be safer to eat the roots of plants you’ve grown from seed so that you know for sure you’re not getting hemlock. Yes, the plant that was used to kill Socrates is related to parsnip. When it’s in bloom, it’s easy enough to tell the difference since hemlock has white flowers and is taller. Foraging books shy away from recommending a meal of wild parsnip since it would be dreadfully—fatally—easy to confuse the two plants in their rosette stage,. In addition to being an invasive European plant that crowds out native species, wild parsnip can cause a world of hurt. The issue is the sap. It’s phototoxic, meaning it causes irritation when exposed to sunlight. If you were to handle the leaves and shoots of a parsnip at dusk and take a shower before daylight, no problem. But if [...]