One of the plants my hubby and I found in abundance on our recent walk in Strathcona Ravine was cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum, syn. H. lanatum, H. linatum – sometimes called H. sphondylium subsp. monatum). It’s a common wild flower in Alberta, usually found in any location with damp soil. I find them endlessly fascinating, with their huge leaves, hollow stems, and impressive white flower umbels…but many people know them only because they are frequently confused with their highly toxic relative, giant hogweed (H. mantegazzianum, sometimes mistakenly called H. maximum), which – as far as I understand – is not yet found in this province.
Interesting Facts about Cow Parsnip
- H. maximum is the only native North American plant of the genus.
- “Heracleum” is a reference to Hercules; the plants are so named due to their large size. Cow parsnip will grow up to 2 metres in height. The dreaded giant hogweed will grow up to 5 metres tall.
- Cow parsnip flowers can be brewed into an infusion that will apparently ward off mosquitoes. No word on whether or not you apply the infusion to your skin or just leave it in a mason jar on your picnic table.
- Cow parsnip is a member of the Apiaceae family – this is obvious by those characteristic flower umbels, which can be up to 20 centimetres across.
- Cow parsnip is highly attractive to butterflies.
- The white flowers apparently smell a bit like vanilla, but I’ve never noticed this. I tend to think of cow parsnip as a rather stinky plant – but maybe I usually encounter it when it is fruiting. The fruit does not have a pleasant odour.
- Cow parsnip does not like to be transplanted – it also does not grow well in disturbed areas.
- H. maximum has a short life span, but it makes up for that by reseeding itself all over the place.
- You can make a yellow dye from cow parsnip roots.
- Historically, the immature roots were cooked and eaten by North American indigenous peoples. The young stems and leaf stalks were also peeled, cooked, and eaten. They supposedly taste like celery. Raw stalks were also peeled and eaten.
- Cow parsnip may be used for erosion control or to stabilize slopes due to its substantial root system.
- The stems of cow parsnip are hollow between the nodes. I used to play with the dried ones when I was a child – I was fascinated by the fact that they were hollow.
- Wear gloves when you pick the flowers of cow parsnip, as they have tiny spines along the stems.
- Cow parsnip was once used to treat bruises and blisters, and to reduce swelling of the extremities.
- The stems and leaves of cow parsnip contain small amounts of furocoumarins, toxins which can cause phytophotodermatitis. To be on the safe side, wear gloves when handling cow parsnip. However, cow parsnip should not be confused with the highly poisonous giant hogweed, which can seriously harm a person. Giant Hogweed or Cow Parsnip?
Does cow parsnip grow where you live?