ur dying orchard was demolished during a frigid February storm
that exposed the earth’s bones. My daughter, who had studied
environmental science in college, suggested we not worry. Nature,
she said, always finds a beautiful way to renew itself.
She was right. By mid-spring, the devastation had turned into
a magnificent meadow, embroidered with clover, smartweed,
Wandering in the meadow, I was living a fantasy.
Until the weeds moved in.
It started with the pretty charlock, a relative of wild mustard that threatened to turn our
meadow a brazen yellow. It was joined by the beautiful Canada thistle, then the innocent-looking bedstraw that each spring turns the fields a sickly white. We’ve been battling
these and other invasive plants in astounding numbers for a decade, but in recent years
our battle with these interlopers has been reduced to occasional, halfhearted forays.
That’s because all our energies have been focused on just one archenemy, a weed so
terrifying and powerful that no other – nor even the combined force of all the invaders
trying to establish their home in our home – has come close.
It started out innocently. A tall, golden flower in a distant field. Not charlock, being so
huge and exotic looking. I liked it and cut some to bring indoors to brighten the overcast
day. By fall, the single plant had turned into a tight-knit horde, and I began to suspect
we had a problem. By spring, I learned its name, and seeing it march in widening strips
across the fields, I knew we were in for a protracted war. But it was hot and humid, and
my husband, Ted, showed no enthusiasm for yanking out tall weeds that he said were
“Pretty? Pretty? Do you have any idea what they are?”
He didn’t – not really – a situation I set out to remedy with a botanical tale bristling
with Sturm und Drang.
Ted was not impressed. We had licked the charlock, hadn’t we? We’d deal with this, too.
In time. The time, right then, was perfect for a long swim in a cool lake.
The first battles in the Parsnip Wars were tentative, unfocused. A big mistake, because
by the following summer, the isolated bands had spawned multitudes. Shocked, realizing
I had been sleeping on watch, and with Ted now ready to join me, even while admitting
no remorse, we moved into full combat mode, ready to use any outlandish method
suggested and any yet to be invented.
Learning that no truly effective weapon for this monstrous plant existed, and that none
were in the offing, we turned ourselves into weapons. We became a Ted-and-Martha
machine of mindless demolition, a single, fused organism of murder and mayhem.
This time, Ted was the one who energized both of us. Because this plant’s evil is obvious
to anyone with eyes, discerning or not.
First, there’s the matter of size and girth. Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) averages four
feet in height, but in rich soil and sun, it can grow to ten, as it does on our hill. Its stout
stalk reaches the girth of a young tree trunk but, perversely, resembles a celery stalk on
Then there’s its slyness, its trickery, its insidiousness.
The plant is related to carrots and garden parsnip, but that relationship is nothing but
a red herring. A biennial, it flowers in its second year. In the first year of its miserable life,
it’s a rosette of basal leaves modestly hugging the ground, invisible in the tall grass. All
the while it is marshalling its forces. Spreading out, it hogs the sun and shades out other
plants, preventing anything else from growing close. By not flowering the first season, it