saves its energy and directs it down – far, far down – as it grows a massive taproot that
reaches to the bedrock, possibly into neighboring fields or even other states.
In its second season, it flowers. And here’s a blooming example of its deviousness.
How can I say this without perjuring myself? Yes, it’s a handsome flower, huge, bold.
Even its leaves are attractive, fernlike, pinnately compound, with saw-toothed edges,
resembling overgrown celery leaves. It looks like something that shouldn’t be growing
in a sober climate like ours but in some rainforest with strangling, carnivorous vines.
It doesn’t end there. Poison is its first name because it’s related to the poison hemlock that killed Socrates, a not-insignificant relative to have in one’s family tree. While
poison parsnip won’t kill you, it will burn you, as it did poor, ignorant me.
The weed reaches its glory during the hottest days of July. You can see it then from
great distances, nodding in the breeze, beckoning you closer until, dressed in shorts
and a tank top, you reach one, bend down, and yank. Its hollow stem breaks, releasing
a vile liquid that, in the presence of sunlight, feels like a flame scorching your exposed
skin. You ignore it because it doesn’t make sense to feel such burning, until you feel it
again, more powerfully this time, on the other arm; when it reaches your cheek, you go
inside to cool off and take a look. You see a red rash in multiple spots, which – even as
you continue to stare, uncomprehending – turns into a series of blisters.
“If it feels like a burn and looks like a burn, it is a burn,” you finally conclude.
Called phytophotodermatitis, the burn is caused when psoralen in the parsnip’s sap
is activated by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The brown discoloration that follows
the blisters lasts into the fall.
The parsnip’s seeds, while not poisonous, come in staggering numbers and are
easily dispersed by wind and water. The seeds can survive as long as five years, during
which time they can, under the right circumstances, grow and fester. And since this
is not a picky plant, the circumstances are always right, resulting in dense stands that
rapidly outcompete native plants. A midsummer drive along almost any road in New
England displays its chilling power, with miles of parsnip triumphantly lining road-sides and highway medians.
And yet, as a vegetable, it was prized in colonial times. When displaced by the more
popular potato, it escaped from gardens to colonize vast areas. Personally, I would
choose death by starvation over consuming this freak of nature, which evolved from
a benign vegetable into a marauding monster as it escaped its confines and became
naturalized throughout most of the United States and Canada.
So there we had it. A superweed. An invader that threatened to turn our life-giving meadow into an impassable wasteland useless to humans, mammals, and, most
tragically, to the bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds. How I wished it were only
charlock, which now seemed almost benevolent.
But it wasn’t charlock, and when you declare war on poison parsnip, you have to
Caution is burned into my skin. No matter how hot and sunny and humid and
windless the day, we dress in full battle gear: socks over long pants, long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, and heavy gloves. Stepping out, surveying the invasion, we each choose a
vaguely rectangular area for the day’s attack. We work for up to three hours, depending
on the heat, the tolerance to sweat, the physical and emotional energy each of us is
able to summon. We are poked, tripped, bruised, scratched, bloodied, our clothes only
a meager defense.
Weeding anything is much like housecleaning. There’s the dirt you see, and there’s
the dirt you uncover as you clean. In this battle there are the yellow heads we can spot
from the house and the hidden, uncountable small ones you can’t ignore once you
bend down to yank a large plant. Thus the area set aside for a day’s work is never, ever
We start out together but mostly work alone. Sometimes we meet at the corners
of our rectangles, or while walking to a common pile to deposit the pulled carcasses.
Often, we don’t meet at all.