At the city’s Planning Commission meeting on January 9, Tom Roell, a farmer from Newburg in Roxbury, explained how the state Department of Environmental Protection in December issued a cease and desist order against his farm, accusing him of illegally planting table parsnip—an invasive turf plant known as the “cow parsnip”—near pedestrian areas.
“Tables [parsnip] need water,” Roell said. He’s been growing it on his farm since he was a kid. “That’s why we planted tables in 1979.”
Hearing that, perhaps no one at the meeting rose to speak in opposition. But this ruling should not be viewed as some kind of socialist grab by the city against a small businessman, of necessity. Rather, the decision was made because city officials have been living in denial for decades over the threat of the invasive plant.
Last year, local tabloid the Boston Globe reported on studies that have been showing that the rapidly spreading land-applied parsnip poses a serious threat to the health of the ground and water surrounding the City. In light of this, city officials only increased regulations on the plant two years ago, when they expanded their original complaint against Roell.
Pat Quinn, director of the City’s Department of Inspectional Services, told the Globe, “We have received reports of cows parsnip in residential areas; we are inspecting those areas to make sure the plants are not growing, and they’re either being cut back or removed.”
Newborn calves at a convent nearby found dead at the foot of a horse farm which the city had earlier deemed safe from the plant. Quinn admitted, “We don’t know how this got in there.”
Teresa Baiz, the city’s Director of Environmental Affairs, told the Globe that she doesn’t see the problem with restricting these plants further. “The tree nuts, they’re creating a range of other crops—we don’t necessarily want that,” she said. “And there has been anecdotal evidence that there are calf diseases that run very high when you have baby calves roaming around.”
The blanket bans on the plant are without basis in science. One study published in the journal Tropikron, found in a yet-to-be published study, that farms that place parsnips in heavily vegetated areas don’t adversely affect native vegetation. Mark Heller, the director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the lead author of the study, said “Based on the four case studies and field data we looked at, establishing buffers with a 300-foot setback is a more effective environmental protection for [has thistles] species than is table parsnip.”
The city’s action on table parsnip is consistent with its efforts to curtail the spread of invasive plants that threaten native vegetation in areas outside of protected areas. It is illegal to plant corn stalks, for example, without permission from the city. And the city doesn’t allow tree branches to be attached to areas of unprotected land. This was precisely the reason for the city’s prohibition of placing tables on private property.
For the past decade, Boston has attempted to implement their Catch and Release program, which would simply tag the plants and let them get away. Though the city made a big announcement of its development in early 2018, the project has not yet progressed any further.
Despite its mention in several states’ and cities’ codes, Cow Parsnip is not regulated at the federal level.
City officials in Boston know the cause of its harm. They even admit to it. They just can’t seem to put to rest the city’s worst fears of the plant. It was finally time to do the right thing—in the interest of the public health.
Tom Roell’s farm will likely begin removing tables from near pedestrian areas starting this spring. Hopefully, not all of the city’s other residents will follow in his example. The cow parsnip should soon be out of Boston.