Wild Parsnip Pastinaca sativa

Wild Parsnip is a member of the Apiaceae family, often referred to as Umbellifers because of their umbrella shaped flower heads. The family includes the ancestors of many of our favourite vegetables - parsnips, carrots, parsley, celery, fennel - but also includes the most poisonous plants in Europe. They are considered fairly challenging to tell apart, but if you know what to look for, most of them are easy.

To identify an umbel to species level you need to note the following:

  • are the flowers white or yellow? (If they are yellow it narrows the choice of species down very considerably.)
  • are the stems hollow or solid?
  • are the stems spotted or tinged with red?
  • are the stems ridged or smooth?
  • are the stems hairy or hairless?
  • does the plant have a distinctive smell?
  • how divided are the leaves? Compare the leaf shape to illustrations in a field guide.
  • Compare the seed pods to illustrations in a field guide. The seed pods of different species are quite easy to distinguish from one another.
  • are there bracts (like small leaves) under the main or secondary umbels?
For other umbels on Loire Valley Nature click on the Umbellifers label in the right margin.

Scientific Name: Pastinaca sativa (Apiaceae). 'Pastinaca' means 'food/pasture'; 'sativa' means 'sown/cultivated'.

English Name: Wild Parsnip (Carrot family).

French Name: Panais cultivé (='cultivated parsnip').

5 Key Characters:
  • yellow flowers.
  • seeds brown, flat and 'winged'.
  • rough and hairy, smells strongly of parsnip.
  • long tuberous cream root.
  • touching the plant can result in a nasty rash (like a burn). 

Lookalikes: Wild Carrot Daucus carota, which has white flowers.

Habitat: Dry rough limestone grassland and waste ground.

Flowering Period: June-July-August.

Status: Abundant. Native to the Touraine and Berry. The garden variety is not much cultivated or eaten here, but is becoming more available. The sap is toxic and plants should be handled with care. Skin contact with the sap then exposure to the sun causes phtyophotodermatitis, a chemical burn which can be visible for more than a year. The toxins, furocoumarins, are present to discourage herbivores. The toxicity seems to vary from plant to plant and with the age of the plant (older plants seem to be more toxic).

Photographed by Loire Valley Nature:


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