Wild parsnip, aka "poison parsnip," has become ubiquitous in much of Vermont in the last decade, overrunning fields, highway medians and unkempt yards. But a group of intrepid Monkton residents are working at night to take on the invasive plant.
A few weeks ago around midnight, night owls and alert dogs in Monkton might have noticed a small light bobbing in the darkness along one of the town roads.
Upon further inspection it would have become clear that the light belonged to a headlamp strapped onto the body of one Jaime Schulte, a Monkton resident who has taken it upon himself to spend summer nights pulling poison parsnip by the dozens along community roadsides and neighbors' lawns.
Schulte moved to the small Addison County town a few years ago and noticed that his property was overrun with this invasive flower.
More from VPR — Beware The Poison Parsnip: What Makes It Dangerous? [July 2016]
Wild parsnip is in the same family as carrots, parsley and the more commonly eaten parsnip. It can grow 5 feet or more. Its leaves are similar to flat-leaf parsley, and it and sprouts large, umbrella-shaped yellow flowers in its second year of growth.
But, like most plants in this family, it has photosensitive chemicals that react to sunlight. So the sap can cause second-degree chemical burns on human skin. Several recent reports of people going to the hospital with painful red blisters have highlighted the dangers of coming into contact with this plant.
And so that's why Schulte operates under cover of darkness. Every summer, before the plant goes to seed, he spends eight or nine nights pulling plants by head lamp. By his own estimate he's now pulled more than 9,000 plants.
Schulte has become something of a poison parsnip warrior. And now he's recruiting other like-minded Monktonites into his army.
In mid-July he posted a note on the Monkton, Vermont community Facebook page that started this way: "Friends, Monktonites, countrypeoples lend me your eyes. Once more the enemy stands, ubiquitous, upon our lands."
Schulte invited people to take up arms (specifically shovels) against the invader and attack.
And attack they did.
After organizing on Facebook, several community members met up one evening in mid-July to see if they could make progress against the thousands of poison parsnip plants at the local town park. Slathered in bug spray and wearing pants, long-sleeved shirts and gloves — despite the warmth of the evening — the group spread out and began hacking away at the hundreds of plants that lined the walking paths and ball fields.
"I'm just here helping the community," said Roberta Pena, who was among the parsnip-pullers. "I have kids that play in this area so I just wanted to make sure that they're safe and don't have to worry about it when the soccer ball gets kicked out in the middle of the field."
Ian and Kelly Schulze had a personal reason to want to get rid of the plant, as well. A few years ago, unaware of the potential hazards of wild parsnip, Kelly Schulze wound up in the emergency room with severe burns. She still has the scars.
"It was excruciating. I mean, I couldn't walk. My legs were completely swollen and it just felt like my legs were on fire ... and I had the blisters and everything," she recalls. "So I don't recommend it. Not a good time."
So the Schulzes were trying to spare others the same pain. "I'm just kind of concerned about the town is all," Ian Schulze said.
Poison parsnip can be pulled by (gloved) hands when its small, but bigger plants are more easily dispatched by shovel. John McNerny, another participant, showed off a special shovel. Called the "Parsnip Predator," it's a regular shovel that's been modified for optimum parsnip destruction.
"There's a little inverted V notch that helps," McNerny explains. "You know, if you've got a pointed shovel, you hit one of those big thumb-sized ones [and] sometimes your shovel will just glance off the side. The inverted V makes it center right on the stalk and just slice it off."
The group knows they'll have to come back over multiple years to eradicate the plants that have already seeded in the soil, but Schulte says it's worth it.
"Yeah, if you look at the state there's millions of them, of course. But if I can tackle the little bit of roadside and my property and the neighbor does the same thing, you can definitely make a difference in your neighborhood," he says. "It's satisfying because you can count the progress and see it."
Tips for pulling wild parsnip:
- Try to pull the plants after they've flowered but before the seeds have dried up and fallen off. Mid-June to mid-July is ideal in Vermont.
- Slice the plant at the root to make sure it can't regrow.
- Schulte says it's okay to leave the plant where it has fallen, if you don't need to clean up the space. Or put pulled plants in a shaded place (like under a hemlock tree). If they haven't gone to seed, they won't sprout new plants. State officials suggest bagging them up and throwing them away.
- Take precautions! The sap of the poison parsnip can burn when exposed skin comes in contact with sunlight. Wear protective clothing and gloves and shower immediately after working with the plant.
- Working after dusk is ideal. Not only is the weather often cooler, but it is a safe way to make sure you're not exposed to sunlight before you can clean off.
- Don't get discouraged. Wild parsnip establishes itself in the soil and can sprout for several years after you've cleared the initial crop. But over time you will see progress!