Wildflower Stories – the Hercules of Plants

ATwildflowers_umbelCow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) has a fascinating relationship with war, GMOs and sunscreen.

The plant’s scientific name probably points to its size – it’s taller than me (but that’s not saying much). It takes two years to grow that big. If you’re going to put that much time into growing, you’ll want to make sure nobody eats you; which leads us to the other possible reason for Cow Parsnip’s scientific name. Some claim Hercules used this plant medicinally.

Many plants contain chemicals to protect them from predators. This plant makes “furocoumarin”. In humans, furocoumarin combines with sunlight to cause a rash. This is where war comes in. During World War II, military organizations recruited plant and insect experts to investigate the defensive (or offensive) properties of these chemicals. Mustard Gas is similar in its blistering effect to furocoumarin.

Most plant predators, though, are not humans; they’re insects. As you can imagine, Cow Parsnip is very effective at deterring insect herbivores. So, the genes that will ultimately produce furocoumarin are prized. If you could insert those genes into another plant (how GMOs are made), the same protection will occur.

Beware the inevitable evolutionary “arms race” that results though. A few insects can eat Cow Parsnip, either due to mutations that let them break down the furocoumarins or behavioral shifts (like eating that plant only at night or when rolled in one of the plant’s leaves. Remember, the chemical has to be combined with sunlight to produce an effect.

And we get to sunscreens. A related chemical was used as a “tanning accelerator” up until 1996. Unfortunately, it caused rashes (“sun poisoning”), skin loss and even cancer. Turns out, furocoumarins can mutate DNA.

umbel

Cow Parsnip belongs to the Carrot family of plants. They tend to have hollow stems and flowers in “umbels” (like umbrellas). Some relatives are frequently on our dinner table (carrots, celery, parsley, dill, etc.); some, like hemlock (not hemlock), are deadly.

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4 thoughts on “Wildflower Stories – the Hercules of Plants

  1. I just noticed an article on CNN about the invasive giant hogweed in the UK and US and it looks related to this. Apparently some people handled it without knowing the danger and were burned pretty badly.

    • Thanks, CavePainter! I hadn’t seen that article. It does look like a related species (Heracleum mantegazzianum), but still the same defensive compounds.
      To be honest, I’m not sure which one I drew! Cow Parsnip is native and was the right size. Giant Hogweed has purple spots (visible in this drawing) on the stem. Either way, don’t touch!

  2. Losing our Plants – RedNewtGallery

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