The roots of wild parsnips are perfectly edible, just like the ones you’d buy from a store. Many people mistakenly think they are toxic, but this is because the leaves of wild parsnips contain a chemical called furanocoumarins, which can cause severe localized burns on the skin when activated by sunlight. You certainly wouldn’t want to go harvesting wild parsnips with bare hands, but with some precautions, they can be a worthwhile root vegetable to forage.
What You'll Learn Today
How To Identify Wild Parsnip?
Parsnips are one of my favorite root vegetables. When par-boiled and then roasted, I find their sweet flavor and crispy caramelized outside quite delicious.
Caution! – You’d expect, therefore, that I’d be dashing out to harvest this widespread plant when I’m out foraging, well I would be if it were not for a few significant downsides that we’ll get to in more detail later.
For now, I will strongly stress that although I can identify a wild parsnip and will do my best to help you do the same, I cannot guarantee that you’ll get it right. So for your own safety, you must never eat any plant you cannot 100% positively identify.
Other members of the same family as the wild parsnip are so deadly that just one small bite is enough to kill you, and there is no anti-toxin.
Wild parsnips aren’t too difficult to identify once you know exactly what you’re looking for.
- Height – When fully grown, the plant will be as much as five feet in height.
- Stems – The stems are grooved, hairless, and hollow. This is an important distinguishing feature.
- Leaves – The leaves look a lot like a large celery plant. They are bright yellowy-green with three to five leaflets coming from either side of the main leaf stem. The edges are coarsely toothed in shape.
- Flowers – These are deep yellow and formed in clusters creating a spray with a flat top. This can measure from three to eight inches across. Wild parsnips usually flower in their second year, from May or June until July or August.
- Seeds – As the flowers die off and mature into seeds in late summer, they turn brown and have tiny wings that allow them to be dispersed easily on the wind.
- Habitat – Wild parsnips are vigorous biennial plants that can thrive in a broad range of different habitats. It is widespread in the northeastern and midwestern states. It is considered to be an invasive plant, as they spread easily through their seeds.
- Growth Pattern – In its first year, the wild parsnip will grow into a rosette of leaves that is low to the ground. In the second or third year, the rosette will grow a flower spike.
Only the taproot (long root going deep down into the soil beneath the plant) is edible. Both the stem and the leaves are toxic.
In this video, you can see how to identify wild parsnips and how indigenous Americans use them:
What Plants Look Like Wild Parsnip?
There are some other plants that may resemble wild parsnip. They include:
- Young Elder trees
- Golden Alexander
- Wild Carrot
- Hemlock – Often fatal if eaten!
- Water Hemlock – Often fatal if eaten!
- Young Elder trees have a similar leaf pattern to wild parsnips, making the two easy to confuse.
- Dill is another plant often confused with wild parsnip because its height and flower are similar. The leaves of dill, however, are not.
- Tansy flowers are yellow like wild parsnips, but they grow in a cluster of neatly rounded balls, and the leaves are feathery in appearance, unlike wild parsnips.
- Golden Alexander can be pretty difficult to tell apart from wild parsnip. The leaves are fairly similar, although the golden alexander’s are smoother with fine serrations, while the wild parsnip has deeply toothed leaves. The flowers on both plants have a starburst appearance. The flowers of wild parsnip create a flat cluster, while those on the golden alexander are looser, and the cluster is uneven and slightly domed in form.
- Wild Carrot, otherwise known as Queen Anne’s Lace, is in the same family as wild parsnip, the Apiaceae family. The leaf pattern is similar to that of the wild parsnip, only they are smaller, more delicate, and the plant is much shorter, only two to three feet in height. Flowers of the wild carrot are white or mauvy-white with a flat clustered form and a distinctive black or dark-colored dot in the center.
- Hemlock, or Poison Hemlock as it is also called, is also part of the same Apiaceae family as carrots and parsnips. The main difference is that it is poisonous, including the roots. The leaves are similar in appearance to flat-leaf parsley or wild carrot, and it can be very easy to mistake hemlock for them. The leaves of wild parsnips are larger and broader, with more defined serrations.
- Water Hemlock is one of the most toxic plants known to man. It is most often deadly to anyone who eats any part of it. It grows to around 8 feet tall in wet meadows or by rivers or lakes and flowers in the spring and summer. The flowers are white and grow in clusters comprising many tiny white individual flowers with five petals on a long stalk. The clusters are called umbles. The leaves of the water hemlock are large, double or triple compound leaves, closely resembling young elder plants. Like the wild parsnip, they have coarse teeth and a fleshy hollow stalk.
Before foraging for any wild plant similar to these, it is essential to get a really good guidebook (or two, or three) with clear pictures of all parts of the plant so you can identify them correctly. A mistake could be fatal!
How Can You Tell The Difference Between Dill And Wild Parsnip?
It is elementary to tell the difference between dill and wild parsnip. Mainly just from looking at the leaves. Dill leaves are very fine, delicate, and feathery, and although the flowers can have some similarities, both being yellow and growing in clusters, the leaves will quickly enable you to tell the two apart.
Dill also has a powerful aniseed aroma, which you will often be able to smell without even touching the plant.
Wild parsnip leaves are twice as long as dill with broad, wide, deep teeth around their edges.
Like the wild parsnip, dill was introduced to the US, but unlike the wild parsnip, it is not invasive. It is a favorite food for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars which seem to love it.
When Should You Harvest Wild Parsnips?
Before going out to harvest wild parsnips, first, remember that the leaves of the plant can cause a really nasty skin reaction which results in burns and large painful blisters.
To prevent this from happening, ensure that you are wearing protective clothing that will completely stop the sap from touching your skin.
- All parsnips are harvested at the end of their first growing season. This is when the taproot becomes fully established into the ground but has not yet put all of its energy into producing a flower spike.
- If the parsnip has flowered, then it is too old to harvest. However, what can be helpful is to identify them when they are in flower, then go back to the same area the following year to gather the newly seeded plants.
- You don’t want to harvest your parsnips until there have been a couple of significant frosts. The reason for this is that the frosts improve the flavor of the parsnips, making them sweeter.
- Once you have positively identified your parsnip leaves and put on your protective gear, simply dig around the base of the leaves with a garden fork or, if the ground isn’t too hard, with a trowel or hand fork, being careful not to spear the parsnip.
- Loosen the soil all the way around the base, then, grasping the leaves with gloved hands, pull it gently from the soil and clean it off.
- It is wise at this point to cut the leaves off with a sharp knife or pruners. Make sure to discard them safely, so no one else will touch them and get hurt.
Your harvested roots can be roasted, boiled, grilled, fried, or added to stews and soups. They are delicious when teamed with herbs like rosemary and thyme or dressed in honey and mustard.
Parsnips have been enjoyed in many parts of the world for 1000’s of years and were even used as a sweetener in Europe before sugar was available.
What Do You Do If You Encounter Wild Parsnips?
Should you encounter wild parsnips while out on a walk, be sure to keep yourself, your children, and any pets away from the plant. The furanocoumarins in the plant’s sap can cause severe blisters and chemical burns on bare skin.
Simply brushing up against the plant is sufficient to release the sap. Once sunlight activates it, the burns and blisters appear within 24 to 48 hours following contact.
The skin reaction is called phytophotodermatitis, and it can cause the skin to become sensitive to sunlight for many years after.
Is Wild Parsnip Safe?
Providing you have:
- Correctly identified the plant you are harvesting as wild parsnip
- Protected your skin from contact with the sap of the plant by wearing synthetic, water-resistant materials on your arms, heavy-duty waterproof gloves, and eye protection
- Kept children and pets well away
- Gathered the right tools to harvest wild parsnips
- Cleaned and cooked the parsnips thoroughly
Then wild parsnips are safe to eat.
The leaves and flowers of wild parsnips are never safe to touch with bare skin. If you accidentally touch the leaves or flowers, wash the area liberally with soap and water and keep it covered and away from sunlight for at least 48 hours.
Should a reaction occur, see your physician.
Wild parsnips are delicious and nutritious and are an excellent wintertime veg that adds some sweetness and spice to many dishes.
Always ensure you do your homework very thoroughly when harvesting any wild plant, and remember, some won’t only make you sick, they can quickly kill you. It takes only three hours from ingestion to die from eating water hemlock.
Also, take care around wild plants as the sap and hairs of others, not only wild parsnips, can also cause allergic reactions, blisters, and burns.
Once you are confident about identifying wild plants, it can be really gratifying to go and gather them and enjoy their flavors in your cooking.
Looking for more advice on foraging? Here is our guide to wild grape leaves.