I love the Welsh hedgerows of summer,
full of white Cow Parsley, Common Hogweed,
and dotted with Red Campion, and purple Foxgloves.
Delicate white Cow Parsley and Hogweed flowers sway gently amid roadside flora, and along paths, and the edges of fields. Both Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) are common sights from spring into summer, and their dry stalks and skeletons decorate the verges when autumn and winter arrives.
Being an everyday sight in the UK countryside, Cow Parsley has become a favourite wild plant to include in my writing, its form and structure adds to descriptive scenes and offers history and familiarity to the reader.
It’s also familiar to readers who understand herbs and plants, as cow parsley has been used in traditional medicines to treat ailments, stomach and kidney problems; breathing difficulties and colds. You must be able to positively recognise the plant before using it as medicinal, or even in cooking, as you can make Cow Parsley soup and a variety of other recipes. My sister advises me that her horses love Cow Parsley!
Cow Parsley is recognisable with its long, green, furry stems which are ribbed and have a V shaped groove, umbels of white flowers often tinted pink (left in picture below), and fern like leaves (top middle). Common Hogweed is a very close relation. Its leaves are edible when young, and it’s discernible from Cow Parsley by its daintier florets and broader leaves, but more rounded (bottom middle) than the jagged, spiky leaves of Giant Hogweed. Another cousin is the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) with narrow ferny leaves and heads of tiny white flowers, but you’ll recognise the difference as the Wild Carrot’s flower cluster usually has a single red/purple flower right in its centre.
It has to be said that you need to be incredibly careful not to confuse these with their dangerous and poisonous relations Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) and Hemlock (Conium maculatum).
The first way to tell Giant Hogweed apart from its Common counterpart and Cow Parsley is its size. Cow Parsley can grow to just over 1m (3-4 ft), Common Hogweed a bit taller, but Giant Hogweed grows up to 3m (almost 12 ft) and its umbels of flowers are pure white and can reach the size of 60cm (2 ft) across. Giant Hogweed will generally tower over you and its stems are far thicker. Its leaves are deeply lobed with jagged, serrated edges, and its stem is bristly and purple blotched, (which you can see in the top right picture). Giant Hogweed has violent sap which will react if it touches skin in bright sunlight inducing burns and painful blistering, needing quick medical attention. My mother discovered this when she tried to cut one down without realising what it was and ended up arms of red blisters and hospital treatment.
Hemlock is much smaller, and very similar in appearance to Cow Parsley with fern like leaves, but it also has stems blotched wine-red, though its stalks are smooth (bottom right in picture). All parts of Hemlock are poisonous though it was also used as medication by the Anglo-Saxons.
Giant Hogweed is well known for its dangerous phototoxic sap, but it’s wise to remember that all of these plants have sap that reacts to bright sunlight. In the same way a wild animal would attack if assaulted plants can do the same, and if these plants are cut down by mechanical means (strimmers etc) they utilise their defences and their sap will react and burn when it touches skin.
Both Cow Parsley and Wild Carrot are also called Queen Anne’s Lace in the UK. Queen Anne took the British throne in 1702, and she was the second daughter of James II. A story goes that the queen asked her ladies-in-waiting to see who could make lace as beautiful as the cow parsley in the countryside, and only she could. Another story says that Queen Anne pricked her finger while making lace, thus why the Wild Carrot has a purple flower at its centre.
I love the wild flowers that embellish my landscape, and along with Bluebells, delicate, lacy Cow Parsley enchants me as it bends in the breeze like fairy blossom…
What wild flowers charm you?