August 22, 2019

Today's blog post isn't about quilting, it's a warning about wild parsnip.

Last week while I was teaching in New Hampshire I walked to dinner one night and along the way I picked some wildflowers along the side of the road. I knew what I was picking -- goldernrod, purple loosestsrife and Queen Anne's lace.

But when I got back to my hotel I noticed a small black line of sap on my wrist, about the size of a fingernail cutting. I tried to wash it off, but it was stuck on. I figured it would just wear off, like pine sap, and I ignored it.

The next day, I noticed that instead of going away, it was actually burning down into my skin. Not good. I cleaned it some more, tried to scrape it off, put some alcohol on it. A day or two later it seemed to be healing. I noticed a couple of small red spots next to it that looked like tiny blisters but figured they would heal too.

A couple of days later in Vermont I asked some of my quilting students what they thought it might be. They mentioned wild parsnip.

Take a look at the picture: it's a beautiful yellow flower that's shaped like Queen Anne's Lace or Anise. But this is horrible stuff. 

A day or two later there was a scab on the spot, but I pulled it off, thinking that whatever the stuff was that was still stuck to the spot would finally come off with it.  I put some Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it. 

The next morning, the wound was red and swollen for about an inch around where the scab had been. It looked like an allergic reaction to the Neosporin or the Band-Aid, so I took off the Band-Aid and let it air dry. That's when the real trouble began.

Eleven days after that little drop of sap landed on my wrist, instead of healing, the reaction to that wild parsnip has spread.  It seems that when I put the Neosporin on the wound, it absorbed the oil from the wild parsnip and spread it everywhere I touched with my wrist.

My forehead erupted in an itchy rash last night. I woke up with my right eye partially swollen shut, my right ear is swollen to the point I can't wear an earring, and my neck looks like I have a giant red hickey. (I had tucked my hand under my head while I was laying on the couch watching TV.) Over the course of the day the rash spread up my right jaw, and I now look like I have half of a red beard.  There were patches on my left arm where I crossed my arms and touched my wrist to my arms and over the course of the day the rash has spread over my whole arm.  

And all of the areas exposed to light are BLISTERING -- because this stuff produces phyto-photo-dermatitis -- it causes you to get a sunburn when it is exposed to  sunlight. And apparently in my case, I don't even need sunlight.

In addition, it seems I'm having just a plain old allergic reaction to the stuff as well, because my stomach hasn't been exposed to sunlight but the reaction has developed into big red blotches of itchy rash there. (Note a few days later: I took antihistamines but they had no effect, so I have to assume that this is just the reaction to the oil without being exposed to light.)

To make things worse, I woke up and found all of this on the morning I had to give the final presentation for the business course I've been taking all summer.  Fortunately I had some tinted sunscreen that presumably would prevent some of the burning while it covered the rash and blisters -- until they kept spreading out from underneath it.

Meanwhile, the original spot on my wrist has developed a thick patch of blisters for about 1" on every side of the wound. I've wrapped the wrist loosely in strips of leftover quilting fabric to keep the light off of it.

Now I'm supposed to run my booth at a quilt show in the morning and I'm dreading what I'm going to look like when I get up. I can still feel my face swelling up more and lifting boxes is going to be a problem with the sensitivity on my wrist.

Apparently now there's nothing more that can be done other than to wear sunscreen or long sleeves to prevent light exposure, cover the rash with makeup, and wait for the blistering to stop spreading and then to heal. I'm hoping it doesn't affect my face any more than it already has (my forehead is beginning to look like Frankenstein). It sometimes leaves dark coloration behind . . . I'm hoping that doesn't happen as well. And it is unknown how long the photosensitivity lasts.

It's amazing and kind of frightening what a tiny amount of this sap can do. I'm only grateful that I didn't actually pick the stuff and get a really big dose of it - my hands would have been swollen masses of blisters.  The pictures I've seen online are horrific. 

Learn to recognize this stuff and stay the hell away from it!!!!!

Here are some links to learn more about it:

Good article by a naturalist, discusses treatment & explains the science of how it affects you.

Warning, this one has disturbing pictures of large blisters


A few days later:

The blisters have stopped spreading though I can still feel them as bumpiness on my left arm and the area is slightly red. I expect that soon the blisters will dry and the skin will peel like it used to when I got sunburns as a child. I don't know how long the discoloration will last.

Fortunately my face and neck didn't erupt into full-blown blisters, the swelling has gone down and there is no discoloration.

A few blisters have broken out on my fingers, particularly on my right hand, but no new ones have appeared for a couple of days so I'm hoping there will be no more.

Aloe vera cream (Infinite Aloe or Hawaiian Aloe) has been effective in relieving some of the redness and itch on my stomach so I'm using it on all the places that were affected.

The blisters are no longer spreading at the original site on my right wrist, but they are still thick and puffy and it is clear that this area will take weeks to heal. This morning I hemmed several strips of black fabric to wear as cuffs over the area to keep it clean and dry while keeping the light off. They will also prevent the area from touching any other part of my body, just in case there is any more oil that could spread. (I'm not taking any chances!) I'm holding them on with a couple of those bendy hair clips. I'll probably make more in different colors to coordinate with different outfits because these cuffs will be an accessory I'll be wearing for a long time.

I now keep a bottle of sunscreen and a roll of paper towels next to where I keep my keys and hats. I don't go outside without applying it.

I don't know if the body breaks down this oil and if so, how long it takes. I think about this stuff binding to cell DNA as it works its way through my body and can't help but wonder what ticking time bombs it might be planting in other places. The idea that it alters my cell DNA is kind of scary. With my hair/skin coloration I was already in the demographic most highly susceptible to skin cancer; this stuff almost certainly will make me more vulnerable to that.

In researching wild parsnip I've learned about several other related plants that have similar properties, including

Giant Hogweed (

Cow Parsnip (

I'll be carefully avoiding them too!

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