It’s been one of the driest springs on record. How lucky we are to be able to spend our hot days enjoying the many waterways in the region.
Lately as I drive through Lanark County towards Big Rideau Lake I am seeing dead or dying red clover, daisies, milkweed, buttercups, chamomile, chicory, brown eyed susans, burdock and countless other plants and shrubs whose names I do not know. Tips of sumacs are unnaturally yellow and orange. But the plants along the road are not yellow from dry conditions, they’ve been killed by Clearview, a herbicide that was sprayed in June to protect us from the wild parsnip plant. Although well-intentioned, the process hasn’t been flawless.
Some stretches of road have been sprayed where was little or no wild parsnip threat. Parsnip won’t invade forested areas or wetlands. It can’t spread easily past granite outcroppings. It can’t jump out at you from a ditch while you are walking by. It’s a vegetable.
If all you want growing on the roadsides is grass then this is the way to continue. This makes it easier for some people, but it doesn’t make for for a healthy ecosystem. Many broadleaf plants on the roadsides are neither weeds nor noxious. Clover, for example, fixes nitrogen, attracts pollinators and supports the soil food web. Our pollinators need these plants, and we need our pollinators.
Aminopyralid, one of the main ingredients in Clearview, remains active even after passing through an animal’s digestive system. Deer that eat the treated plants will carry the still-active herbicide far and wide through their manure. It can persist in soil for years. This is a restricted-use agricultural herbicide; strong stuff as I’ve been told, and is not available for general public use. You can’t apply it to lawns, playgrounds and parks. You also can’t use it in Norway, New York State or California where they protect their ground water resources more vigourously. In Montana, they first detected aminopyralid in well water in 2007 and subsequent testing has found it every year since. This is no surprise as the the Dow label clearly states "may contaminate groundwater”. The label also states that it is not to be applied to a "moderate to steep slope". Sounds like a ditch to me.
We can decide to continue the spraying, with the likelihood of creating a more resistant plant. Keep spraying for years, and change it up for more toxic herbicides. Expose our rural children to even more pesticide drift and remember to tell them not kick up the dirt on the side of the road. Pay for expensive tests to check our well water. Or we can decide to leave the wild parsnip alone as they have in Iowa, where they discovered that the plant has stopped spreading and never did threaten any farmers’ livelihood.
Education is the key here; the flowering plant is easily identified and it will only hurt you if you snap the stalk, come in contact with its juices and then expose your skin to the sun. Everyone needs to be able to identify this biennial plant in its first and second year of life. Take precautions by using gloves, wearing long pants as one should when in tall grass. Wear protective clothing and goggles when whipper-snipping as advised by the manual. Cover up your loved ones when they walk in the woodlands, fields and gardens. Wash exposed skin after being in the garden. When we work and play outside, we need to be mindful of the many risks out there, and those risks are not just coming from this plant.
The Ontario Invasive Plant Council recommends mowing to control this plant. Mowing needs to be done before the plant goes to seed so that it can’t reproduce. Some people are shaking their heads as they see many roadsides now being mowed a few weeks after being sprayed…go figure.
In twenty years, I don’t think our grandchildren will be asking us why we didn’t get rid of the wild parsnip plant. Instead they will be asking us why we didn’t do a better job of protecting our water, air and soil. What will we tell them?
The local governments have tried their best to keep us safe from wild parsnip. As for me, I don’t feel much safer. And I’m getting my well water checked.