Robyn Hankins, a 28-year-old gardener from Corfe Mullen, Dorset, experienced excruciating blisters after coming into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip while working in a garden.
The cow parsnip, also known as common hogweed, is often considered harmless, unlike its notorious relative, the giant hogweed, which is known as one of the most dangerous plants in Britain.
However, both plants contain similar phytophototoxic compounds that render the skin susceptible to sunburn and severe burns.
Robyn was wearing long sleeves and gloves, yet the sap managed to touch her skin unnoticed.
The Nature of Cow Parsnip and its Hazards
Cow parsnip, scientifically referred to as Heracleum maximum, is a wildflower found in various habitats such as woodlands, grasslands, and river edges.
Its sap contains a phototoxin that reacts with ultraviolet light, causing skin irritation that ranges from mild rashes to severe blisters.
Often misidentified as giant hogweed due to their similar appearance, cow parsnip lacks the characteristic purple blotches found on the stem of giant hogweed.
The Delayed Onset of Symptoms and Medical Assistance
Robyn discovered red burns on her arm and hand only the following morning after the sap came into contact with her skin.
The burns worsened over three days, causing significant discomfort.
The delayed onset of pain is a notable feature of phytophototoxic sap, as victims may not realize the danger until after exposure to sunlight.
Seeking medical help, Robyn initially used hydrocortisone cream based on a pharmacist’s suggestion.
However, as her condition didn’t improve, she consulted a doctor on the fourth day.
The doctor collaborated with a nurse to drain the largest blister for pain relief and cover the wound, although the smaller blisters were left untreated.
The Importance of Awareness and Caution
Despite her experience, Robyn’s doctor continues to monitor her healing process, advising her to keep the injuries covered when outdoors to prevent further reactions to sunlight.
Robyn now urges others to exercise caution around cow parsnip.
She emphasizes that even when wearing protective clothing, the sap can still come into contact with the skin.
Her recommendation is to remove clothing and wash thoroughly after handling the plant, regardless of whether one thinks they’ve been exposed.
Differentiating Common Hogweed from its More Dangerous Relative
Common hogweed is widespread in the UK and Ireland, often considered harmless and even used in recipes.
A profile of the plant on Countryfile asserts that it is not dangerous to humans.
However, the case of Robyn Hankins highlights that even seemingly harmless plants like cow parsnip can pose risks due to their phytophototoxic properties.