Wednesday Weed – Cow Parsley

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Cow Parsley (Anthriscum sylvestris)

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

Dear Readers, how can it be that I have been doing the Wednesday Weed for two years, and yet have never described a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae)? It’s not as if I don’t pass these plants often, as cow parsley grows freely in Cherry Tree Wood, and Coldfall Wood.  Today, however, just one plant was in flower along the Parkland Walk, a most intriguing north London path that stretches from Highgate to Finsbury Park along the route of a disused railway line.

IMG_5343Cow parsley is also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, though in Flora Britannica Richard Mabey is of the opinion that this is a rather contrived name, possibly imported from North America, where the plant is widely naturalised. It is also known as Mother Die, a rather sinister title. It may be that this relates to a belief that bringing the plant into the house was unlucky, but more likely it is because although the Apiaceae contain the relatives of many of our food crops (including carrot, parsnips and celery), it also contains some of the most poisonous plants in the UK, such as hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort. In other words, it’s probably wise not to go eating the roots of this family (or indeed any other part) unless you are 100% confident of what you are doing. This may explain another regional name for cow parsley, ‘keck’ – my dictionary states that it is a 17th century name meaning ‘nausea’ or ‘disgust’. It seems that mis-identification in the carrot family has been causing problems for centuries.

IMG_5338The leaves of cow parsley look rather like those of ‘real’ parsley and chervil, and indeed they are said to taste sharper than chervil, with a hint of carrot. I would be inclined to leave them alone, if I were you. They are also said to form a good mosquito repellent, but again, beware – the leaves of the giant hogweed look somewhat similar (though it would be difficult to mistake cow parsley for something with stems 10cm thick) and can cause burns.

IMG_5339It always puzzles me when, as here, a single plant has burst into flower, months before its neighbours (cow parsley normally flowers in May in great abundance, as you can see below). So, Is there something about this particular spot that encourages precocity – maybe richer soil, or more light? Or is it something genetic? If the latter, this early-flowering would be a good illustration of the kind of variation that might give a plant an evolutionary advantage in the right conditions. At any rate, this plant has certainly got a jump on its many, many neighbours. Let’s just hope that there are some hoverflies around soon to pollinate it, or all its efforts will have been in vain.

By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cow parsley in full flower (Photo One – credit below)

In spite of the superstition surrounding the plant, it is popular with flower arrangers, and to my surprise I discovered that it has been ‘improved’ and several varieties can be bought. Here, for example, is ‘Ravenswing’, with black foliage.  Is it more beautiful than the plant in its natural state? I shall leave it for you to judge.

By Megan Hansen - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nestmaker/4580952597

Cow parsley ‘Ravenswing’ (Photo Two – see credit below)

IMG_5336

Cow parsley in its natural state

As you might expect, this attractive plant has inspired artists, including Elizabeth Sonrel, who lived from 1874 to 1953 and who painted in the Art Nouveau style. Below is her painting ‘Our Lady of the Cow Parsley’. It reminds me very much of the paintings of the seaasons by Mucha that used to adorn the walls of our family house. Only a pedant would point out that the flowers look rather more like Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) than cow parsley, but if you’re looking for a pedant, you’ve come to the right place.

Elisabeth Sonrel's 'Our Lady of the Cow Parsley'

Elisabeth Sonrel’s ‘Our Lady of the Cow Parsley’

The Latin species name for cow parsley, ‘sylvestris’, usually means ‘of the woods’, and it is often found in the less shady parts of a forest, along a path or ride. However, it is an adaptable plant, found en masse beside hedgerows and walls, a frothy sheet of delicate white in spring. Each solitary flower is a modest little five-petalled thing, but a single plant can have up to five thousand individual flowers. No wonder beetles and hoverflies and dance flies can often be seen clambering over the flowerheads, giddy with nectar and coated in pollen. And in case you’ve never seen a dance fly before, there’s a photo of one below. The name ‘dance fly’ comes from their erratic movements in flight. Also known as ‘dagger flies’ because of their sharp protruding mouthparts, many of these flies are predators on other insects, and perform an invaluable role in keeping insects that we find pestiferous under control. So, in all our justified concern for bees, let’s not forget these other, less charismatic creatures, who make our lives easier without being noticed at all.

By Leviathan1983 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Dance Fly (Empis tessellata) on cow parsley (Photo Three – photo credit below)

14 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Cow Parsley

  1. alcsmith

    Wow, this is early for Cow Parsley! How lovely that you have covered one of my favourite plants on what happens to be my birthday. An extra treat for me 🙂

    Reply
  2. Daisy Solomons

    As children in the 1950s, we were often genuinely hungry, and in Summer, we pulled up cow parsley carefully, aiming to keep the root intact. We then washed the white, carrot shaped roots, and ate them. They had a strong taste and took a lot of chewing – nobody told us they could be poisonous. But then cautionary tales about plants were very few – deadly nightshade and hawthorne berries were the only poisonous plants we knew of.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s fascinating, Daisy. I’ve dug up wild carrot (which does have a bit of a carroty twang to it) but I’ve never tried cow parsley. Cow parsley itself isn’t poisonous, but there are so many plants which vaguely resemble it which are noxious. Incidentally, I remember someone else telling me that they dug for pignuts under a very similar looking plant. It is interesting also that so much knowledge of what was edible and what was dangerous has been lost – the average garden is full of trouble to the uninitiated, from laburnum to foxglove to yew. Apparently an average 10 year old in Papua New Guinea already knows the properties of over five hundred plants, and has memorised hundreds of miles of footpath around his/her village. What a contrast….

      Reply
  3. radicalhoney

    Lovely to read all about cow parsley. Such a beautiful plant. It is interesting about the painting, ‘Our Lady of the Cow Parsley’. It does look very like Alexanders! I wonder whether the name has moved around or changed over time? To be honest, I am a pedant about these things too I shall refuse to glance at the painting again! 😉

    Reply
  4. Beach-Combing Magpie

    I’ve always used the term ‘Cow Parsley’ to describe a whole host of related plants and always thought all of these were toxic, whether alive or in their dead, stalky state. I love the dried umbels and used them as decoration around the house – but the cats ‘appreciated’ them too, but not for the same reasons and they had to go, for fear of poisoning the two furry vandals with their seeds…. The member of this family to really look out for it the Giant Hogweed, which inspired many French art nouveau wood carvers from the Ecole de Nancy, and is indeed HUGE and, apparently highly toxic. It also was the inspiration to the song Return of the Giant Hogweed by Genesis, when Peter Gabriel was still the lead singer…

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I would really like to see some Giant Hogweed, but occasional panics about children using the stems as blowpipes result in the plants being destroyed wherever they appear, unfortunately. And I remember the Genesis song well, I was a big fan :-). The flowerheads do look fabulous after a a touch of frost, don’t they.

      Reply
      1. Bug Woman Post author

        I loved ‘Selling England by the Pound’. And Peter Gabriel in a flower head dress. They were ok for a while with Phil Collins, but Peter Gabriel really was The Man….

  5. Anne Guy

    We are fortunate to live in a little rural village and I love the lanes around here when the cow parsley is out…all frothy and lovely… that is until the council hedge trimmers arrive or over zealous residents lay waste to it with strimmers and all so as they can see round the road bends better when driving!!! It is such a shame as it such a fleeting flowering…Grrr!!

    Reply

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