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, when winter comes it’s such a surprise to find anything in flower. What does this Hogweed think that it’s doing? There are no flies to pollinate it, and the ground would be too cold and hard for seeds to germinate anyway. But there it is, in full bloom, with some little green buds ready to burst forth once the main flower has done its stuff.
Hogweed is the smaller cousin of giant hogweed, which I wrote about here. The flowers are said to smell like pigs, and there is a theory that this is what attracts the flies that are its main pollinators, though the scent was too faint for me to pick up when I gave them a sniff. The species name, sphondylium, means ‘vertebrae’, and is supposed to be because the stem resembles a backbone, though this wasn’t obvious to me. I’m assuming that the spine condition spondylosis comes from the same root word.
The individual flowers of the hogweed remind me of happy sailors wearing bell-bottomed trousers. The flower heads are known as umbels, and are flat-topped, providing lots of space for hoverflies and other members of the family. There is one specialist pollinator known as a picture-winged or celery fly (Euleia heraclei), and what a gorgeous little critter it is! The males display on the surface of the hogweed leaves, gyrating their multi-coloured wings and hoping to attract a lady friend. However, the hogweed is a member of the carrot family, and any resultant celery fly offspring are, as the name suggests, pests of vegetables which are part of the same family, such as celery and parsnips.Hogweed is native to the whole of Europe (except Iceland) and is also found in North Africa. It has a reputation as an aphrodisiac (I read that it also known as the ‘love weed’, which is rather more pleasant than its usual name), and as a treatment for all kinds of gynaecological and reproductive issues. In particular, hogweed powder and hogweed tincture are said to be efficacious, though I do note that the plant is also said to cause and aggravate prostate problems, so, as usual, I would be extremely careful if attempting to use this plant for medicinal purposes. It also contains sap which can cause a rash on exposure to sunlight: in this respect it is nothing like as potent as giant hogweed, but I would still cover up if you planned to strim a patch of the stuff.
Like many native plants, hogweed has a variety of rather charming vernacular names: Eltrot, Caddy and, my personal favourite, LImperscrimps. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how it has been used in childrens’ games: sometimes the stems are used as swords, and other times those hollow stems were turned, with some ingenuity, into water guns.Hogweed can also be eaten (though never raw because of the caustic properties of the sap). The ever-wonderful Eat Weeds website has a recipe for Sauteed Hogweed Leaf Stalks with Nettles and Wild Garlic – this appeals to me a lot because I can imagine finding all these things in one small patch of ‘waste’ ground. And here are Spiced Hogweed Seed Biscuits! Lastly, the plant has long been used in Eastern Europe as an ingredient in borsch, and so here we have Fermented Hogweed Borsch. The nutritional value of fermented and pickled foods such as sauerkraut are just beginning to be recognised here in western Europe, but they have been a valuable source of vitamins and flavour in other cultures for millenia.
Unfortunately, if you search the internet for hogweed, nearly everything that you find will relate to its giant cousin, which is a much more tabloid-worthy plant. I am just pleased to find something in flower on these grey, windy, cold days. Let’s take comfort in the fact that the winter solstice will soon be here, and then the days will start to get longer again, almost imperceptibly at first. Then, one day we will leave work at 5 p.m. and it will be light outside, and the great axis of the year will have turned one more time. In the meantime, let’s make the most of soup, and slippers, and hot water bottles, the true pleasures of the season.
Photo One (celery fly) – By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK (Celery fly (Euleia heraclei)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three (borsch) – By Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7284301
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.