Beware This Deadly Trio

Skull and Crossbones

Ah, summertime. A time to picnic in the park and hike through the woods. We want to get out in nature and enjoy the beauty around us. And we especially want to do it safely. A great part of doing it safely involves protecting ourselves from mosquito and tick bites, bee, wasp, and hornet stings, and encounters with noxious plants. It’s this latter topic that I want to deal with here. We’re all familiar with poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. We all know to avoid coming in contact with these. However, there are three plants that are highly noxious and will cause some very serious harm if touched. I’m referring to giant hogweed, wild parsnip, and cow parsnip. All three contain furanocoumarin toxins. These are phototropic toxins which, when exposed to sunlight can cause severe burning that can last for months and leave permanent scars.

Here is some more information about this noxious trio.

Cow Parsnip

Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) – Cow parsnip is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae). It is native to the Pacific Northwest and Midwest. Like carrots, cow parsnip is a biennial – it produces root and leaves the first year, then flowers and seeds the second. The flowers attract a wide variety of insects, and are an important source of pollen and nectar for many of our native bees and other pollinators. In its first year, the young stems and leafstalks can be eaten and were actually used as a food source by indigenous North American tribes. However, in its second year, the stems and leaves produce those phototropic toxins which can do serious damage to your skin. (Source: Anchorage Daily News ( and Illinois Wildflowers (

Wild Parsnip

Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) – Wild parsnip is a fairly common plant (considered by some to be an invasive) that can be found growing in city parking lots, along roadsides and river banks, and near railroad tracks. It has also been found invading prairies, oak savannas, and fens, and has even been found growing in soccer and baseball fields. It can grow 2 to 5 feet-tall and looks similar to Queen Anne’s lace but with yellow instead of white flowers. Like, cow parsnip, it is a biennial and the leaves and stems produce the phototropic, skin destroying toxin. (Source: Chicago Tribune ( and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed (Pastinaca sativa) – Giant hogweed is a biennial or perennial herb in the carrot family (Apiaceae) which can grow 14 feet in height or taller. Its hollow, ridged stems grow 2-4 inches in diameter and have dark reddish-purple blotches. Its large compound leaves can grow up to 5 feet wide. Its white flower heads can grow up to 2 1/2 feet in diameter. Native to the Caucasus Mountain region of Russia, it was introduced into Europe and the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth. In some states such as New York, it is a federally listed noxious weed and it is illegal to possess with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport, introduce or propagate. (Source: Chicago Tribune ( and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (

Should you have the misfortune to come in contact with any of these bad boys, wash the affected area with soap and water and keep it away from sunlight for 48 hours. If you think that you’ve been burned by any of these plants, then run, do not walk, to your doctor or the nearest emergency room or treatment center and have it attended to pronto!