Beware the wild parsnip

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Out for a walk the other day, my husband and I spotted the dreaded yellow umbrel flower of wild parsnip, although I wasnít 100 percent sure thatís what it was.

Wild parsnip looks like several other native species, like Queen Anneís Lace --- which has a white flower, and it looks almost identical to golden Alexander. So I pulled out my handy smartphone and looked up the difference between the two plants --- smartphones can be good sometimes.

The best way to tell the two plants apart is by the leaves. Wild parsnip has deeply forked leaves, while those of golden Alexander are overall smooth with fine serrations.

The plant we saw WAS definitely wild parsnip.

Wild parsnip has been in the news a lot these past couple of years, although it was first brought to the Midwest by European settlers as a food source, so it has actually been around a long time. When crushed, wild parsnip releases a sap that if left on the skin can react with sunlight and cause a damaging and painful burn. So if youíre outside where wild parsnip is present, just practice caution. Wear long pants and long sleeves as well as eye safety equipment if you are going to come into contact with it.

Plants like prairie parsnip and other invasive species are problematic because they are not native and have a tendency to spread erratically. Thatís why we see plots of wild parsnip, large patches of dameís rocket and out-of-control groves of garlic mustard.

One way to keep invasive species from taking over a space is by having a healthy, diverse area of native prairie plants. In native prairie areas, plants such as wild parsnips cannot compete and struggle to get established. Invasive species tend to flourish in disturbed, unhealthy plots.

You can help stop the spread of invasive species by bringing back the local prairie plants. There are so many beautiful options that can be included in wild prairie areas as well as landscaped gardens. Think vibrant butterfly milkweed, bright yellow coneflower, beautiful purple spiderwort, gentle pink wild roses, tall compass plants, elegant vervain --- the list of beautiful native plants you can incorporate in your landscaping goes on and on.

To see more examples of how you can incorporate natives into your wild and groomed outdoor areas, visit exhibits and gardens at the Dickinson County Nature Center, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 2279 170th St. in Okoboji. You can also find out more at or by following us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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