Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)


Parsley Family (Apiaceae)

Other Names:

harts-eye, madnip, yellow parsnip.

Origin and Distribution:

Parsnip is a native of Europe that was introduced into North America as a root crop. Wild parsnip is the naturalized form, which escaped cultivation and is now widespread throughout North America. In Ohio, wild parsnip is found in nearly every county. Wild parsnip grows in roadsides, waste places, old fields, meadows, and along railroad tracks. It grows primarily on rich heavy soils.

Plant Description:

Wild parsnip is a biennial or sometimes a perennial that looks and smells similar to cultivated parsnip. The plant forms a rosette of leaves during the first year of growth and a large edible taproot. During the second year, it produces erect stems that grow 5 feet tall and terminate in umbrella-shaped clusters of small yellow flowers. Wild parsnip reproduces by seeds.

  • Root System:

    Wild parsnip forms a thick, white to yellowish taproot.

  • Seedlings and Shoots:

    Emerging first are 2 linear seed leaves (cotyledons). The first true leaves are small, ovate, and attached to the stem by way of long leaf stalks (petioles). Then, compound leaves are formed that grow as a basal rosette during the first year.

  • Stems:

    The stem is compressed during the rosette stage of growth and elongates during the second year to form an upright flowering stalk that is 2 to 5 feet tall, branched, hollow except at the nodes, grooved, and somewhat hairy. Stem leaves are smaller than but similar in appearance to basal leaves.

  • Leaves:

    Leaves are alternate (1 leaf per node) and compound with 5 to 11 leaflets. Leaflets are yellowish-green, shiny, oblong, coarsely-toothed, and either mitten- or diamond-shaped. Leaves have a parsnip-like taste and smell and they appear similar to celery leaves. Leaves attach to the stem by way of long petioles with broad bases that encircle the stem at each node. Petioles have 2 ridges on the upper surface and 3 more on the lower surface.

  • Flowers:

    Flowers are small and have 5 yellow petals. They form in terminal, umbrella-shaped clusters that are between 4 to 8 inches in diameter.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    The straw colored seeds are less than 1/3 inch long, round, flat, and winged.

Similar Species:

Wild parsnip belongs to a very large family of plants with thousands of wild and cultivated species. Among the naturalized species that have a similar appearance and may be confused with wild parsnip is poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), which is said to be one of the most poisonous plants in the world. Poison hemlock grows nearly 10 feet tall compared with wild carrot that reaches 5 feet or less. The stems of poison hemlock are covered with purple mottling. Also, wild parsnip has a parsnip-like odor while poison hemlock has a mouse-like odor. Although water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks similar, it grows in wet habitats while wild parsnip prefers drier soils. The distribution of wild carrot (Daucus carota) is generally the same as that of wild parsnip but it is a smaller plant, its leaves are more finely divided, and it has white flowers.


Flowers are produced from May to October. Although the plant is sometimes thought to be poisonous, it is not. The fleshy taproots can be eaten raw or boiled.


Contacting the sap of this plant may increase the sensitivity of some people's skin to sunlight. The resulting dermatitis is more like a burn than a rash and is sometimes referred to as false or artificial sunburn.

Facts and Folklore:

  • Irish beer is often made from the roots of parsnips boiled in water with hops.