Monkton fights the 'Wild Parsnip Battle'
MONKTON — “Is it weird to find it therapeutic?” asked Whitney Leighton earlier this month, after she had spent an evening helping pull up wild parsnip in Morse Park, near Monkton Central School.
Leighton is one of 16 or 17 Monkton residents who have at one time or another this summer gathered in small groups to fight what is being called the Wild Parsnip Battle.
And they’re making progress.
Wild parsnip is an invasive plant, native to Europe and Asia that outcompetes bird- and pollinator-friendly plants, and contains a phototoxic sap that can cause burns, blistering and discoloration when people get it on their skin and then expose the skin to sunlight.
This is one of the reasons Monkton’s “Wild Parsnip Warriors” work in the evening.
The plant’s seeds are often spread by mowing, so they can migrate quickly, especially along or near roadways. As a result, Vermont now has millions of wild parsnip.
Monkton’s Wild Parsnip Warriors — individually and as a group — have removed tens of thousands of them.
And, weird or not, many of them find it therapeutic.
“People like to do this because there’s a concrete satisfaction to it that maybe some people don’t get in their workplace,” said Jessica Demeritt during a group pulling session this past Wednesday evening. “A project like this gives you instant gratification. I can look at this section of meadow and see that I’ve taken away thousands and thousands of seeds from this toxic plant.”
Wearing pants, long sleeves, gloves and mosquito netting, Demeritt waded into the shoulder-high meadow that borders Morse Park’s southern soccer field, pulled up several mature wild parsnip stalks. Then she returned to the soccer field, where she piled them onto a tarp.
At the end of the session the group planned to take the plants into the woods and leave them there to rot. Wild parsnip is not a shade tolerant plant, so the seeds cannot germinate under the thick canopy provided by the nearby pine and hemlock.
Making sure to dispose of the plants in a way that prevents their spread is a critical part of the battle.
“It’s really nice (pulling up parsnip) with other people,” Demeritt said. “It feels like a community connection. Monkton’s a small town. We don’t have a lot of venues for having conversations with the community, so if this is one of them, that’s cool.”
By the time she joined Monkton’s Wild Parsnip Warriors last summer (its first year as a really cohesive group), Demeritt had two years of experience clearing her own meadows.
“I’ve been really satisfied,” she said. “The first year I did it I was out there for a few hours at a time, just going and going and going. This year I was probably done in 20 minutes or so.”
Over time, if the plants are mown or removed before they go to seed, their populations can be dramatically reduced. But making headway can often take five years or more.
“It’s both daunting and satisfying,” said Chelsea Smiley, another Wild Parsnip Warrior, in an email to the Independent. “It’s warm work because you want to try to cover your body to ensure you don’t get any parsnip juice on you, and your nose will always start to itch as soon as you think your gloves might have gotten some juice on them.”
And the deer flies can be incredibly obnoxious, she said.
Still, Smiley finds the weeding “therapeutic.”
She and her husband, Ian, don’t have much wild parsnip on their own land, so they’ve been helping clear their neighbor’s field this year, she said. Sometimes the couple will go out and just pull for half an hour in the evening, listening to a podcast and watching the fireflies come out.
“I’ve joked with (Ian) that if we get another home we might try to get one with (a wild parsnip) infestation, so we could clear it,” she said.
Jaime Schulte, one of the group’s founders, started researching wild parsnip five years ago, after he discovered that his new property in Monkton was infested with thousands of the plants.
“When I first moved in I had three acres that were pretty covered in the stuff — 4,000 or 5,000 plants.”
Schulte’s research led him to a product called the Parsnip Predator, a specially shaped shovel manufactured in the Midwest, where the poisonous plant is rampant. The shovel works by severing the crown buds, which kills the roots without disturbing the soil.
By Schulte’s count, Monktonites have purchased 17 such shovels so far, including 10 that were purchased in bulk by the group this summer and either resold at cost or made available for loan.
“On a really good night, in perfect conditions, I can get 800 or 1,000 plants in a couple of hours,” he said. “So you’re talking eight or 10 nights, maybe, that will clear my place in a summer. You try to find those nights in the 50s and 60s, when it’s cool enough to wear the long sleeves.”
On Wednesday evening, however the soil was moist enough that the plants could be yanked right out of the ground, root and all, and the stalks were piling up fast on the tarp.
PULLING FOR EVERYONE
“I would like to see education about this plant get to a point where everyone feels like they can go out and take care of the plants they have on their property,” Schulte said. “Because if you did it that way, it would disappear quickly.”
The group’s other co-founder, John McNerney, agrees.
McNerney serves on the Monkton selectboard, but he participates in the group strictly as a town resident, he said.
“There is no way the town has the resources to battle invasives for our residents,” he explained. “If we want to put a dent in the invasives problem, we’re going to have to step up and address it ourselves.”
Much of the group’s organizing happens through email, Front Porch Forum and the Monkton Vermont Community Group page on Facebook.
“I have not kept track of the volunteer hours spent on Morse Park and the MCS playground area, but it’s a lot,” McNerney said. “We are definitely having an impact there.”
But, he cautioned, there is a long way to go.
In the meantime, Demeritt thinks there’s a lot to feel good about.
“It feels transformative to make a change in your community,” she said, surveying the nearby meadows. “And I will feel good about that until next year, when it springs up again and we go after it again.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].