Wild parsnip

Encyclopedia Article

Wild parsnip                                    Pastinaca sativa L.

Family: Apiaceae (Parsley family)                           
Life cycle: Biennial
Native status: Introduced to N. America by early European settlers
Habitat: Pastures, roadsides                                   

General description: Forms basal rosette during first year and then erect flower stalk up to 5 ft high in second year. Inflorescence is a flat-topped umbel that are 3-8” wide. Flowers are yellow.

Key ID traits: Leaf is composed of 5-15 egg-shaped leaflets that are sharply tooted at margins. Stem is hollow and grooved.

Similar species: Golden Alexanders (GA) is much less common in Iowa than wild parsnip, but has yellow umbels similar to wild parsnip. GA is a native prairie species rarely found in disturbed habitats such as roadsides. The lobes on GA leaves are pointed compared to rounded lobes on wild parsnip, and GA only reaches heights of 2-3 ft. Golden Alexanders also flowers about a month earlier (late spring) than wild parsnip.

Miscellaneous: The sap of wild parsnip contains a toxin that causes severe rashes and blistering (parsnip burn) when it comes in contact with the skin and sunlight (phytophotodermatitis). Wild parsnip was brought to N. America by early European settlers as a food crop. Dr. Pammel, a botanist at Iowa State College, described wild parsnip as common in every Iowa county in the early 1900s.  (Additional information)

Basal rosette of wild parsnip with egg-shaped lobes on leaves.


Yellow flowers on umbel of wild parsnip.


Mature wild parsnip along an Iowa roadside - common sight in June.