Warning: Wild Parsnip

This is a wild parsnip plant.



Pretty, isn't it? If you see one, however, DO NOT TOUCH IT. It is extremely dangerous.

These flowers were among the things found on our building's rooftop garden; as you can see, they look a bit like Queen Anne's Lace. Last Saturday, my wife Kim was working among them for most of the morning, not knowing what they were (Nobody else did either; the seeds probably blew in on the wind last autumn).

Within 24 hours after finishing her gardening, she began to feel itchy. Within 48 hours after that, she had developed second-degree burns on both arms, from her wrists to her shoulders. She had to go to the emergency room, and missed a week of work; she was in severe pain for several days, and will have extra burn sensitivity in her skin for the next two years. Had she gotten any of the plant's sap in her eyes, she would have been blinded, most likely permanently.

The plants have since then been removed and destroyed, of course.

We've become something of a pair of experts in this plant over the past week, so here's what we know, in the interest of public safety:

Wild parsnip, it turns out, is a relatively recent invader to urban and suburban areas; because many municipalities (including Toronto) are no longer using herbicides, it and other toxic plants are beginning to flourish in areas where they never did in previous seasons. Wild parsnip is currently one of the top three "plants not to touch" on the Ontario government's website, along with hogweed (its close cousin) and poison ivy.

The way the damage works is as follows: there's a toxin in the plant's sap that is activated by ultraviolet light. Its effect is to render your skin extra-sensitive to sunburns. As a result, what would have been an ordinary tan, or a minor sunburn, can turn into something much more serious: a full-blown second-degree burn. The symptoms, as noted, do not develop right away; the burns take about two days to manifest.

If you have wild parsnip growing anywhere near you, you'd best get rid of it. Tear up the whole plant, wearing gloves, long sleeves, and eye protection. Do it at night if you can; sunlight is what activates the toxin, but artificial lights don't generate sufficient amounts of UV to set it off. Get up the whole root, and be careful not to propagate the seeds. If you do touch a wild parsnip plant, get inside within 10 minutes and stay there for the rest of the day. The toxin will break down on its own, but it takes a bit of time.

More information here, and here, and here.

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