Weed Wars: A Battle Against Poison Parsnip

Weed Wars: A Battle Against Poison Parsnip

Illustration by Jerry King.

Our dying orchard was demolished during a frigid February storm that exposed the earth’s bones. My daughter, who had studied environmental science in college, suggested we not worry. Nature, she said, always finds a beautiful way to renew itself.

She was right. By mid-spring, the devastation had turned into a magnificent meadow, embroidered with clover, smartweed, vetch, vervain, daisies, flowers in white and in purple, in singles and in clumps, in your face and in the far-flung corners. The grass grew long and glossy, like a healthy animal pelt. It swished in the winds, showing off its sinuous moves. The red-winged blackbirds arrived, followed by the bobolinks, turning the fields into a lively nursery.

Wandering in the meadow, I was living a fantasy.

Until the weeds moved in.

It started with the pretty charlock, a relative of wild mustard that threatened to turn our meadow a brazen yellow. It was joined by the beautiful Canada thistle, then the innocent-looking bedstraw that each spring turns the fields a sickly white. We’ve been battling these and other invasive plants in astounding numbers for a decade, but in recent years our battle with these interlopers has been reduced to occasional, halfhearted forays.

That’s because all our energies have been focused on just one archenemy, a weed so terrifying and powerful that no other – nor even the combined force of all the invaders trying to establish their home in our home – has come close.

It started out innocently. A tall, golden flower in a distant field. Not charlock, being so huge and exotic looking. I liked it and cut some to bring indoors to brighten the overcast day. By fall, the single plant had turned into a tight-knit horde, and I began to suspect we had a problem. By spring, I learned its name, and seeing it march in widening strips across the fields, I knew we were in for a protracted war. But it was hot and humid, and my husband, Ted, showed no enthusiasm for yanking out tall weeds that he said were “pretty.”

“Pretty? Pretty? Do you have any idea what they are?”

He didn’t – not really – a situation I set out to remedy with a botanical tale bristling with Sturm und Drang.

Ted was not impressed. We had licked the charlock, hadn’t we? We’d deal with this, too. In time. The time, right then, was perfect for a long swim in a cool lake.

The first battles in the Parsnip Wars were tentative, unfocused. A big mistake, because by the following summer, the isolated bands had spawned multitudes. Shocked, realizing I had been sleeping on watch, and with Ted now ready to join me, even while admitting no remorse, we moved into full combat mode, ready to use any outlandish method suggested and any yet to be invented.

Learning that no truly effective weapon for this monstrous plant existed, and that none were in the offing, we turned ourselves into weapons. We became a Ted-and-Martha machine of mindless demolition, a single, fused organism of murder and mayhem.

This time, Ted was the one who energized both of us. Because this plant’s evil is obvious to anyone with eyes, discerning or not.

First, there’s the matter of size and girth. Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) averages four feet in height, but in rich soil and sun, it can grow to ten, as it does on our hill. Its stout stalk reaches the girth of a young tree trunk but, perversely, resembles a celery stalk on steroids.

Then there’s its slyness, its trickery, its insidiousness.

The plant is related to carrots and garden parsnip, but that relationship is nothing but a red herring. A biennial, it flowers in its second year. In the first year of its miserable life, it’s a rosette of basal leaves modestly hugging the ground, invisible in the tall grass. All the while it is marshalling its forces. Spreading out, it hogs the sun and shades out other plants, preventing anything else from growing close. By not flowering the first season, it 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 roadsides 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 be combat-ready.

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 completed.

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.

Which is a good thing, because weeding some 25 acres of poison parsnip does not make for friendly conversation. It consists mostly of non-verbal communication, a blend of my whining and moaning and Ted’s cursing in multiple languages, including some he doesn’t speak. It’s possible some are not languages at all, but I can identify curses by the not-so-subtle body language. This is elicited by the worst offenders, the parsnips that have grown so massive that large implements are needed to pry them out. Also, and here’s another example of parsnip’s duplicity, breaking off the smallest stalks will produce a new, stronger plant if the root isn’t removed.

The easiest to uproot are the average-sized plants. With the proper grip at ground level, these can be yanked out whole. Often the yank demands so much force, though, that I land on my backside with the trophy in the air, a tortured yell escaping. This means I miss out on the satisfying whomp – that sound of relief, of emptiness – the grateful gasp of the earth yielding up the noxious root. And I miss the low crunch as the root is drawn up through the earth. With the stalk in the air, I also miss the weight of the soon-to-be-dead monster in my arms, its pliant drape, the heavy flowerhead already losing its vigor.

On a good day after rain, we can amass four hills of trophies, about a third of a truckload.

After a week or two with no rain, each plant takes three times longer. But we can’t wait for rain. We are hostages to the parsnip’s life cycle. Put if off, and it will turn to seed, giving birth to who-knows-how-many thousands of vegetable Genghis Khans.

That thought, and a fury I manage to build up on a daily basis, keep me going. “Where did you come from?” I ask, the voice in my head throbbing with rage. “How dare you colonize our hill? It’s for the bobolinks! They need the tall grass for their nests! And there’s less and less of it around. I hate, hate, hate you!”

The immense loathing powers my muscles, strengthens my smothering hold on the stalks. If I stay with it long enough, it builds into a reliable rhythm. Bend, grab, yank, yank. Bend, grab, yank. Bend grab, yank, yank, yank. After the third unsuccessful yank, I go for the digging fork. Ultimately, the furnace of the sky bearing down and my throbbing lower back win out. I walk the last armful to the nearest pile, shove the fork into the earth, and give up for the day.

We then drive straight to the wilderness lake, where without preliminaries we walk up and over the boulders, fling off clothes, and wade into the glittering water.

There’s nothing more calming than floating on a lake. All emotion dissolves. My ears in the warm water, I hear only my own breathing, which has lost its raggedness. My eyes see into the depths of the sky, penetrate the layers of cobalt air. I close them and let the soft ripples take me where they will.

Back on land, drained of anger, I’m struck by the unspoiled forest of fragrant cedars and tall pines, the ground a jumble of shrubs, thin grass, and stones. A solidly deep-green world, with nary a weed in sight.

It was bound to happen. With so many sources and modes of transport, how could weeds not invade open fields? Birds leave their seeded droppings everywhere. Our meadow is home to hundreds of field mice, to voles and moles and chipmunks that carry seeds in their fur. Deer congregate by the remaining apple trees and crisscross the meadow on their way to other playgrounds.

Then there’s the machinery, a wide brush hog mounted on an ancient tractor. That equipment has cut many fields over many years. As it moves noisily through our meadow, chopping down the tall grass and keeping shrubs and trees from moving in and turning everything to forest, it spreads whatever was stuck to rubber and metal onto our receptive soil. But there’s no choice. Forests, after all, are nature’s default state around here. Once a year, the meadow must be cut.

We, too, do our share. We, too, are unsuspecting recruits. On every walk through the meadow we carry seeds in our clothes and hair and the soles of our shoes. I thought I was being clever when, instead of buying compost in bags, I bought a truckload from a nearby farmer. Within a week, the rich dark pile was a flourishing green, studded with an endless array of familiar and unfamiliar weeds, from ferns and horsetail to dandelion and dock, all racing toward the sun.

But if anyone is the clear perpetrator here, it’s the early European immigrants who first brought seeds to New England: some for food, others for beauty, still more to make the New World feel like home. Other weeds were brought here from the farthest corners of the world in ballast, in suitcases, hidden in the pages of books, in pants’ cuffs, even in agricultural seed bags and livestock. Still others are imported ornamentals that escaped and flourished in the wild. Lacking the natural enemies that kept them well behaved at home, they became a pestilence in their new environment. I’ve never seen a weed under attack by insect or disease. Not ever. They thrive in smug confidence, opulent in perfect health, while our roses are devoured by beetles and even grass succumbs to rot.

Poison parsnip, for example, is native to Eurasia. Its edible roots were consumed in ancient Greece and Rome and cultivars are still grown for food today.

We are all inheritors of ignorance, carelessness, and helplessness.

“Can’t you get some help?” people ask when we complain, which we do, at length and with gory details, to anyone who listens. Misery shared is misery reduced. Although, in this case, unburdening ourselves only seems to redouble the misery when we should be relaxing.

“Four times we hired very buff young men,” I relate. “Each did great, working alongside us. We paid them very handsomely, fed them lunch, and sent them off with a six-pack. Each promised to come back.”

“And?”

“And not one ever did.”

We also try to recruit our many visitors. We take them for walks along the growing network of paths, admired and enjoyed, that Ted cuts through the tall growth. Then we try to guilt them into helping us weed the meadow, and some do. By the second morning, even the helpful guests are enjoying their second slow cup of coffee and planning their day of sightseeing far from our meadow, presumably guilt-free.

By the end of the fourth summer, when the truckloads of parsnip carcasses had dwindled from four to three-and-a-half, we realized that brute strength would not suffice. We had to outsmart the parsnip.

So we devised a controlled, scientific experiment. In late summer, we divided the now-parsnip-free acreage into four fields. Two would be brushhogged in the fall as usual. One would be cut regularly, like a lawn. The birds would have to live in slightly more crowded quarters. The last field would be left untouched, the logic being that if the ground was not exposed over a couple of years, new seeds would find no bare earth in which to establish themselves.

The experiment is in its first year, and any results will tell us nothing. Because parsnip seeds are viable for five years, the experiment will have to continue.

Which works for me. Despite being criticized for being impatient, as a gardener, I am a paragon of patience. Because as a gardener, you can’t be otherwise. Gardeners live in the future, whether in the unfolding season or one five years hence, waiting for our fruit trees to yield and our perennial gardens to come into their own. Even then, we can never be content with the present, as we forever plot expansions and enhancements. I’m sure Eugene O’Neill had gardeners in mind when he said, “those who pursue the merely attainable should be sentenced to get it.” It’s not a trap into which gardeners ever fall.

So I plot, weed, curse, wait. The future will be a magnificent prairie of native grasses and wildflowers that will set the soul singing along with the bobolinks. Such a future can only be attained at great cost and with great patience.

Maybe.

Martha Leb Molnar is an author, commentator on Vermont Public Radio, and public relations professional who moved to south-central Vermont from the New York City metro area in 2008.

 
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