Updated: Jan 8
I’m beginning to really dislike anything with an umbel.
What’s an umbel, you say? Imagine an umbrella. Now, remove the canopy (fabric) so you’re left with the handle and ribs; top it with a bunch of tiny flowers. Voila: An umbel.
I have never eaten parsnip—a rather plain-colored, carrot-looking root of the same family—but after seeing a PSA [public service announcement] meme on social media about the wild version of our edible vegetable, I’m hesitant. Why?
Because… umbels. It seems almost everything that grows one is dangerous. Wild parsnip is only one of a number of umbellifers (yes, it’s a word) that sports sap which, in combination with sunlight, can produce some serious chemical burns. This reaction results in phytophotodermatitis, a painful rashing, blistering, and permanent to semi-permanent discoloration of the skin.
Like other dangerous umbellifers, Wild Parsnip is a tall plant and hard to miss once it flowers. Topping out around 5 feet, it’s yellow umbels cast themselves toward the sun June through August (you’ve likely started to see them around already). It grows everywhere in Minnesota and in most of North America, in ditches, fields, highway medians, even growing dangerously close on the edges of parks and yards.
I know, I know… Let’s not get alarmist. A number of perfectly safe wild and cultivated plants grow umbels. For instance, Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) is a joyful mark of summertime. For centuries, children and brides have used its umbels to fashion themselves white, lacy crowns; chefs and cooks have used them to make a delicately sweet, floral, slightly citrus-y jelly. Many of our favorite edible plants and herbs grow umbels—carrot, dill, fennel, celery, cilantro. There’s even a native species of giant umbellifer called Purple Angelica used as a decorative addition to gardens because of its bold coloration (psst: It’s also medicinal and the stalks are a favorite of forager-chefs like Alan Bergo of Minneapolis).
Technically, yes, wild parsnip root is edible, too, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Even after thousands of years of cultivation, we haven’t been able to breed the phototoxins out of the parsnip plant. Farmers, field workers, and grocers are warned to take care when handling it lest they contract “parsnip rash”, a lighter (yet still painful) version of the wild parsnip’s burning bite.
Other than Wild Parsnip, some of the most infamous wild umbellifers are also some of the local wild’s most dangerous plants. Included in these is Cow Parsnip; Poison and Water Hemlock; and, the big daddy of them all, Giant Hogweed.
The trouble with these plants is that they easily look like a safer doppelganger (lookalike) to the untrained eye! For instance:
Highly poisonous Hemlock (of which eating a leaf is enough to kill an adult within hours) is easily confused with Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot);
Wild Parsnip umbels look like Golden Alexander (another of the carrot family, though harmless), seedlings resemble young cilantro; may be mistaken for the very common and bee-beneficial Goldenrod;
Cow Parsnip may be confused with Purple Angelica (even I was fooled and vigilantly cut down every Angelica in my backyard before I realized the difference!).
There’s a huge row of Cow Parsnip—imagine Wild Parsnip, but taller, more thickset, and with white flowers—growing down my road. I wince every time I drive by. The cluster of plants spreads every year and I have to fight the urge to get a long-armed lopper and get all Queen of Hearts and “Off with their heads!” on them.
And, lucky for us, Giant Hogweed—which looks like a bigger, angrier Cow Parsnip—has not had any confirmed sightings in Minnesota, though that doesn’t rule out the possibility of this enormous umbellifer wandering into our state from our Eastward neighbors. Giant hogweed really embraces the “giant” in its name. It can grow over 10 feet tall; its umbel can be as wide as 2 feet across; its leaves, 5 feet wide; the stems alone can grow up to 4 inches in diameter!
Let’s hope this wildly dangerous plant doesn’t move into our state. If you see Giant Hogweed, please notify the DNR at (888) MINN-DNR (646-6367) so they can track its spread and work on managing, and hopefully eradicating, this invasive umbellifer from our area.
For Your Reference: The University of Illinois Extension does an excellent job comparing Giant Hogweed with its lookalikes in this graphic: