Interesting facts about cow parsnip.

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.

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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?

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27 thoughts on “Interesting facts about cow parsnip.

    • It’s quite sizable, but it does like to grow in wet conditions, so we see them here a lot near springs or in low spots in the forest. I haven’t seen them much in the city – I assume they’re mowed down.

  1. Interesting facts Sheryl, over here we have Giant Hogweed too Heracleum mantegazzianum and our native Hogweed is Heracleum sphondylium which looks just the same as yours. In the winter it looks beautiful frosted.

    • I agree – the seed heads look so gorgeous covered in frost! 🙂 Apparently the cow parsnip we have is sometimes classified as a subspecies of H. sphondylium, although it is most commonly referred to as H. maximum.

  2. Yes it does grow here where I live on the Washington Coast. I always thought the one in the bottom photo was Queen Annes Lace.
    Good info and TY for sharing it.

  3. Very interesting, Sheryl. I am fairly sure it grows near us, but we also have the dreaded Giant Hogweed, so I have never dared take a closer look! We do, however, have wild parsnip – Pastinaca sativa. The uses are similar – roots can be eaten etc. But the flowers are yellow. It looks lovely growing with the cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestrus, which is also supposedly a mosquito repellent.

    • Yes, I definitely wouldn’t try to get too close to the giant hogweed! I hope it doesn’t end up spreading our way, as is feared. That is interesting about the wild parsnip, I don’t believe we have them here.

    • Queen Anne’s lace is a beauty, and a very close relative of cow parsnip – the flowers look nearly the same. I don’t think Queen Anne’s lace has that pungent odour in the fall, though – which is nice!

  4. When we lived out in the country we had all kinds of wildflowers and maybe cow parsnip. We had a lot of this but I identified it as Queen Ann’s lace when in fact in fact some might have been cow parsnip. We had 75 acres to explore with swampy, prairie, woods – you name it 🙂

    • Cow parsnip does love swampy soil – it could be that you had some there! I find it really has a nose-curling odour in the fall – but it sort of fits in with the decaying leaves. I’m not sure if Queen Anne’s lace has such a pungent smell.

  5. As Julie said, we have the Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) and Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) here but not your Cow Parsnip. I love umbellifers too. It is strange that the carrot family has some pleasant edible plants in it and also some of the most poisonous plants in the world. I’m thinking of Hemlock and Cowbane especially.

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