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Roadside plant a big pain

Glenn Evans, director of Agricultural Operations at Cornell University’s Agricultural Experimental Stations, discusses wild parsnip along Route 13 in Cortlandville on Wednesday.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Glenn Evans, director of Agricultural Operations at Cornell University’s Agricultural Experimental Stations, discusses wild parsnip along Route 13 in Cortlandville on Wednesday.

One day while working in her backyard, Amanda Barber, manager of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, came in contact with a plant that burned her arm, causing an injury that took three months to heal. Now she makes sure when working around this plant to wear long sleeves.

That plant was an invasive species, Pastinaca sativa, otherwise known as wild parsnip.

“This is a plant that thrives with neglect,” said Glenn Evans, director of agricultural operations at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Wild parsnip is an herb native to Eurasia and looks and smells like cultivated parsnip, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension website. The plant can grow up to an average of 4 feet tall in a year, according to the website.

The plant belongs to the apiaceae family, said Robert Wesley, a botanist at the Cornell Plantation. This family includes carrots, celery, parsley, angelica and Queen Ann’s Lace.

The plant is bineal, which means it takes two years to mature, Evans said. The first year the plant starts out low to the ground as a group of leaves, which helps it evade mowing along roadsides, Evans said. Then, the second year, it shoots up and becomes the big plant, he said. It’s during the second year stage that the plant sprouts its iconic yellow flowers, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The plant is known to cause a rash, burning and blistering. This happens when sap from the plant comes in contact with the skin, Wesley said. Then when sunlight hits the sap a chemical reaction occurs, causing the burn and blisters, he said.

The plant is most recognizable by its bright yellow flowers, which were at their peak around a week ago, Evans said. Standing by the plant at the roadside near Empire Tractor on Route 13 on Wednesday afternoon, most of the plants were a rusty brown color. This marks the beginning of the seed formation and soon the seeds will drop, Evans said.

The plant is found in most of the state and is found in large groups along the roadside. This happens because local departments of transportation mow along these areas, causing a larger dispersal of the plant’s seeds, Evans said.

One trait the plant has is a tap root, Evans said. This means the root grows straight down and allows the plant to tolerate hot and dry weather by burying its roots deeper into the soil to capture moisture, he said.

Evans had a couple of tips if the plant’s sap comes into contact with skin. First wash immediately and then keep the contact area out of sunlight for at least 48 hours. This only minimizes the effect of the chemical reaction but it doesn’t eliminate it, Evans said.

Evans also had some tips in trying to control the plant’s spread.

Immature wild parsnip plants can be mowed over, halting the growth of the young plant.

Another way of destroying the young plant, according to Evans, is while wearing disposable gloves take a trowel and cut the plant off at the root. If the plant has already reached maturity, then safely cutting the plant as low to the ground as possible and disposing of the top can control the strain, Evans said.

If someone comes across an infestation of wild parsnip, they they should take a photo, note the location and contact the DEC, according to the agency.

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