Beauty and danger all along the trail

Beauty and danger all along the trail
John C. Lorson

Yellow, leggy and spread along country roads, trails and field edges, wild parsnip carries a danger all its own in the juices of its leaves and stems. Exposure can make the skin hypersensitive to sunlight, resulting in painful burns and blistering.


Along the trail you’ll see them in the distance, standing taller than a man like low-hung white clouds against the browns and greens of the sprouting cornfields. Set alone against the darkened backdrop of the wooded hills, a single plant appears the work of an overzealous florist — one who longs for winter in the very last days of spring, who chooses snowballs of white over all the other shades of summertime. Poison hemlock can be lovely to look at, but it is deadly poisonous in action.

Like so many other nefarious things, poison hemlock has a traceable history in its invasion of our continent. It was brought over from Europe and Western Asia in the mid-1800s and pitched as a decorative garden plant called “winter fern.” Now a prolific invasive species — a toxic one at that — the plant has spread out across nearly every state in the U.S., along with many Canadian provinces.

Little thought was apparently given to the fact nearly any farm animal or pet that eats any part of the plant can suffer respiratory arrest and die from only a small amount. It works just as well on humans. Had these gardening enthusiasts simply spent more time paying attention in philosophy 101, they would have recognized poison hemlock as the same plant used to carry out the death sentence of Socrates in 399 BC.

Invasive species tend to be great opportunists, and poison hemlock stands always at the ready to establish itself on disturbed ground and take over before native plants have a chance to re-establish. The plant is a biennial and spends its first year somewhat inconspicuously as a low-growing, leafy cluster. The plants you see towering along ditches, fields and at the trails edge are in their second and seed-producing year. In addition to the white umbrella-shaped clusters of flowers, the hollow green stems of the plant have a distinctive purple blotching.

Lovely to look at but deadly to the core, it's best to simply avoid the plant in your travels. If you’re popping off trail to catch a photo, steer clear of this stuff, as even walking through it can lead to a reaction. Point it out to your kids as well and tell them to stay away. There are documented cases of children dying after playing with the hollow stems by fashioning them into whistles and straws.

Not to dwell upon danger in the great outdoors, but to simply make sure folks know what they’re getting into, I also should mention a frequent neighbor of poison hemlock. Wild parsnip occupies the same type of habitat and has a similar leggy appearance, but it is typically shorter and blooms in a distinct shade of yellow. In many areas the two species grow in clusters very near each other. You won’t want to blaze a trail through wild parsnip to make your way around the hemlock, however, as the parsnip is dangerous simply to the touch.

Juices from the wild parsnip plant contain a compound called furanocoumarin, which can be best described as working in the exact opposite fashion of sunblock. A little on your forearm or ankle might not even be noticeable on its own, as it doesn’t typically cause an allergic reaction. Instead, it sets the stage for a painful and damaging burn by weakening the body’s natural protections from ultraviolet radiation, making the skin hypersensitive to sunlight. A little juice on your arm isn’t a big deal until you step into the sun. That’s when your skin begins to blister like an egg in a frying pan — seriously.

Let’s pick apart the $10 word that describes this reaction: phytophotodermatitis. The root, “phyto,” refers to plants while “photo” is light, “derma” is the skin and any type of “itis” is an irritation. In plain English then, we have a plant-caused skin irritation triggered by sunlight, and the reaction can result in severe second-degree burns in affected areas.

So what do you do if you find you’ve stumbled into a wild parsnip exposure? First, immediately cover the affected area. Shielded from the sun, you’re still safe from the reaction. Next, get to a place indoors to thoroughly wash with soap and warm water and even afterward keep the affected area out of the sun for at least eight hours to avoid reaction.

Don’t let my words of caution scare you away from the great outdoors. I just want you to be aware of what you’re walking into and remember to keep yourself safe.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist at P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load