Cow Parsnip Plant in The Rocky Mountains

 Rocky Mountain Cow Parsnip Plant

If you encounter this plant on your hiking and camping trips you could be in trouble

While hiking and camping in most of the US you could encounter a couple plants that could really ruin your day. I will tell you about aExposure to this poisonous cow parsnip plant plant here that is very common in moist areas of the rocky mountains. If you are camping along a river (which is the most common camping area) you will be at risk to exposure of these painful plants.  The other day I walked out of my house with my dog and she spotted an animal of some sort on the side of the house. She ran after it and I followed quickly to prevent a possible porcupine encounter or worse a tangle with a bear. I live on the side of a mountain in the Targhee National Forest and black and grizzly bears are very common here. So as I chased my dog and my dog chased the unknown animal I found a patch (the hard way) of stinging nettles and cow parsnip about 30 feet from where I park my car.

Cow Parsnip

Cow Parsnip in the Rocky mountains. It grows very tall and will irritate your skin badly.

Cow Parsnip has a Photo toxin that will damage your skin when exposed to sunlight.

Cow Parsnip is a large plant that can grow up to 8 feet tall. It looks like a rain forest plant and really seems out of place everywhere I encounter it. This obnoxious plant is very common at even quite high elevation and is very easy to spot, but often hard to avoid because they grow so dense and tall. You are likely to find it on your favorite hiking and camping trails.  It can easily be identified by its large white umbels (umbrella shaped flowers on the top) and huge leaves that can be almost 2 feet wide.

If you happen to brush up against this plant you might not ever experience a reaction, but you might suffer a huge reaction that will torment you for weeks. The cow Parsnip has a photo toxin that once it soaks into your skin will react to sunlight. You will possible experience blisters similar to poison ivy that can last for a very long time. I used to be immune to this plant and would charge right through them on the river banks, I now no longer do that these days. Since I spend most days outside in the bright rocky mountain sunlight, I always try to keep my arms, and legs covered with long sleeve shirts and pants. The only part that is exposed it the back of my hands. It just so happens that the backs of my hands while I am on the river all day start looking like puffed up pimple festivals, because of my recent encounter with the cow parsnip. As I sit here typing this I have not been in the sun yet today, and my hands are almost back to normal. I know though that tomorrow when I hit the river to guide my clients to big fish, my hands will once again react to the sunlight make for an excruciating itchy day.

The Reaction to Cow Parsnip

Some people may never experience any rash or discomfort when exposed to this plant, while others could break out severely into the worst case of dermatitis you have ever seen. I tend to be in the middle ground and only get a fairly mild reaction, although my case I currently have is spreading further up my arms each day.

Heat and sunlight will intensify your symptoms and it is best to cover any area of your body that has been exposed to the cow parsnip.

How to Treat and Prevent Problems Related to the Cow Parsnip

  • Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts on hikes and backpacking trips to limit exposure to the plant
  • Use a cream such as Stokoguard before a hike, this will block the chemicals from entering the skin.
  • Hydro-cortisone cream will  reduce swelling and itching once you have been exposed to the plant on your hiking trip.
  • Limit your exposure to severe heat and sunlight after exposure to the Cow Parsnip plant.