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…..
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.
Cow 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.
The 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.
It 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.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.
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.
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.