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Plants That Burn Back

By Thalen Zimmerman (Published by the Echo Press during my internship)

ALEXANDRIA, MN - First discovered in Minnesota in 1990, wild parsnip, a noxious plant, has slowly found its way into Douglas County. The plant's sap reacts with UV rays from the sun and can cause third-degree burns to one's skin after contact.

Summer, the time of year when people can enjoy being outside and take in all that nature has to offer. Going to the lake, grilling with friends, hitting the trails, and going for a hike, but summer also has its dangers. Blistering heat, toxic algae, disease-ridden insects, and poisonous plants.

Most people know someone who has accidentally brushed against poison oak or ivy (leaves of three, let it be) or came into contact with burning nettle, but a less common one that some may be unaware of is wild parsnip. The stuff has found its way into Douglas County, and it burns!

Jeff Johnson of Alexandria found out the hard way after removing wild parsnip from his property. What started as a black dot that developed within the first day, Johnson described it as being marked with a black sharpie, eventually turned into a third-degree burn. Blisters and all.

“It is poison ivy times 10.” said Johnson, “It starts destroying tissue, is what it does.”

Johnson first thought a brown recluse bit him, a spider with venom that can cause blistering and even destroys skin tissue around the bite mark, then eventually realized the wild parsnip caused the burn.

The wild parsnip is new enough to the area that when Johnson went to get it checked out, the doctor thought it was a reaction from poison ivy. That was before the blistering started, which Johnson said appeared after a few days and lasted for at least six weeks.

Director of Community Relations and Development at Alomere Health, Eddie Reif, said that Alomere hasn't seen any cases come in that the doctors or nurses can recall. "I have never even heard of wild parsnip. The doctors, nurses, and I all had to google what it was," said Eddie. "Now that it is on our radar, we will be keeping an eye out for it."

Johnson said he first noticed the plant about five years ago and has seen it progress and spread more and more every year.

“People see it and mow it down, and all that does is help it spread,” said Johnson. “When I see it now, I destroy it. I take precautions and avoid touching it. Treat it like it will burn you because it will.”

Wild parsnips can spread after anyone comes into contact with it. "My neighbor had it on her hands, and it spread to her thighs and even her face," said Kelly Morehart of Alexandria.

"She had it way worse than I did," commented Johnson.

Wild parsnip or Pastinaca sativa is an evasive species that is very common throughout Wisconsin and continues to move East.

"I wish the county would do something about it," said Morehart.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources web page, wild parsnip was first discovered in the south-eastern region of Minnesota, along the Wisconsin border, back in 1990 and is now present throughout most of the state.

"There is not much of it here yet, but the way it's going, we are going to see more and more as time goes on," said Johnson. "We need the landowners to be responsible and do what they can to remove it."

The danger really comes from the sun. The chemical found in the plant's sap, furanocoumarins, reacts with the ultra-violet rays and makes skin more sensitive to the sun's radiation.

Suppose one were to come into contact with wild parsnip. In that case, the DNR employee right-to-know handbook on poisonous and hazardous plants recommends getting out of the sun to avoid further exposure, cover the area of contact with a wet cloth, wash with soap and water as soon as possible, avoid rupturing blisters and use antiseptic cream to keep the area from getting infected.

Wild parsnip is classified as a prohibited noxious weed, meaning the Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner deems it detrimental to human and animal health, the environment, public roads, crops, livestock or other property.

Wild parsnip can grow in dry, moist and wet conditions, and is often found along roadways, trails, and the edge of woods. The wild parsnip invades slowly and then spreads swiftly once the population builds up. The plant can grow up to 4 feet tall during its flowering season (June to late summer) and has anywhere from five to 15 egg-shaped leaves spread out from the plump-grooved stem. The top has small five-petaled yellow flowers that grow in clumps. Its seeds can lay dormant in the soil for up to four years, making it difficult to eradicate permanently.

Suppose you plan on removing the plant yourself. In that case, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends wearing protective clothing: long sleeves and pants, gloves, and glasses that cover the side of your eyes. Use a blade to cut below the root crown. If spotted, you can report the invasive species by calling Arrest the Pest at (1-888-545-6684) or contact your local county agricultural inspector.

Other dangerous plants to avoid

● Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

○ It can be identified by its three egg-shaped-glossy leaves.

○ Grows in wooded areas and ditches.

○ Oil on the plant causes red-itchy rashes.

○ Burning the plant can release hazardous fumes.

○ Avoid getting its oil on skin, clothing, equipment, and pets as oil re-transfer is possible.

○ Immediately wash hands with soap and water after exposure.

● Poison Sumac

○ It can be identified by its many glossy leaves, anywhere from 7-13 leaflets.

○ Grows best in wet, swampy conditions.

○ Oil on the plants cause red-itchy rashes.

○ Avoid getting its oil on skin, clothing, equipment, and pets as oil re-transfer is possible.

○ Immediately wash hands with soap and water after exposure.

● Grecian Foxglove

○ It can be identified by its flowering-unbranched stems that can grow from 2-5 feet tall. Leaves can be milky-white to a light-yellow. Leaves have fuzzy hairs.

○ Most commonly grows in sunny roadsides, residential yards, grasslands, river bluffs, and forests.

○ Poisonous to humans, pets, and wildlife.

○ Toxins can be absorbed in the skin and affect the cardiovascular, neurologic and gastrointestinal systems. May cause heart palpitations. Can be fatal.

○ Burning the plant can release toxic fumes.

● Poison Hemlock

○ Grows in condensed, wet conditions.

○ It starts off low-growing in the first year and can reach up to 8-feet tall by the second year.

○ Stems are hairless and hollow with fern-like leaves. It has tiny white flowers that grow in huddles.

○ Highly toxic to humans and animals. It can cause weak pulses, dilated pupils, trembling and may lead to coma or death.


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