Wild Parsley and Time

Notes from a Lancashire Country Man.

As I lead walks looking at the wild flora of a locality I find that one particular group of plants causes confusion among the participants. The family Apiaceae  formerly the Umbelliferae consists of many familiar species. Many are grown in gardens to use in culinary or medicinal preparations.

members of the Apiaceae include parsley, celery, corriander, fennel, caraway, angelica, carrot, pignut, hogweed, dropworts, cow parsley and hemlock. Several of the plants are beneficial to man , but some are not. Indeed some have caused many fatalities. Most are familiar with parsley either as a garden plant  or  as a herb sold in supermarkets, the rest need time spent on them to be sure of correct identification. One such as example of this is Apium graveolens the wild celery, from which many garden varieties have been produced. It is a plant of marshy situations and also thrives near rivers and similar places. every part of this plant smells strongly of celery which gives rise to its species name of graveolens which indicates a strong smell. The leaves of this plant were employed in salads and soups and the seeds {dried} were used to decorate celery bread.

Medicinally they were said to be a stimulent, diuretic, tonic, nervine, and to aid a good nights sleep. However, this species is attacked by a fungi Sclerotinia sclerotiorium which can cause shin problems if contact  with the sap occurs.  it is also recommended that pregnant women avoid medicinal preparations containing celery.

A plant that is often mistaken for wild celery is hemlock water dropwort -Oenanthe crocata, a common plant that grows in similar situations. The mature stems are superficially similar to those of the celery as are the leaves. However, this plant is one of Britain's most poisonous species and many fatalities have been associated with it. When the Irish lads were over digging out the canal systems of England the stems of this plant were mistaken for celery on more than one occasion  causing  deaths among the workers.It does not need to be consumed in large amounts to cause agonising pain, vomiting, and convulsions that together can lead to loss of life. The hemlock water drop wort ,therefore will be described in more detail. The plant is stout 3-5 feet high with hollow, furrowed stems that are tough but hairless. The stems are thick and erect with many branches. When the stem is cut or broken it emits a yellow coloured sap that will stain the hand. As mentioned the foliage is superficially similar to those of celery in shape. The lowest leaves have short stalks but they do grow large and tend to spread, they are broadly triangular in outline and pinnate. The leaflets are stalk-less roughly one and a half to two centimetres and are diamond shaped ie, wedged at the base.They have irregular lobes and of a dark green colour on the upper surface and a paler almost shiny green on the under surface. 

The upper foliage is much smaller and almost sessile the segments being narrow and sharper. where the leaf stalks join the stem they are sheathed a characteristic of all this family. The roots of the plant are perennial by nature and fleshy, of a light colour. They consist of clusters of tubers which are similar to those of the Dahlia which most gardeners will be familiar with.

It is therefore essential that correct identification is ensured before anything is taken internally either as food or medicine.

Identification Is Vital

Common Hogweed is useful to man
Common Hogweed is useful to man
Hemlock water dropwort has caused many fatalities when eaten by mistake for Wild Celery
Hemlock water dropwort has caused many fatalities when eaten by mistake for Wild Celery

Angelica Is It an Angelic Plant ?

Locally there are two other species of the family that seem to cause confusion as far as identification is concerned, especially to those participants unfamiliar with the family. They are angelica and the common hogweed. Both are tall plants of grassland and waste places and are of a similar size both attaining the height of one to two metres. Each have flowering umbels and each have leaf stalks that are sheathed where the stalk joins the stem. from a distance they do indeed look similar in appearance. However, let us look closer at the two plants and the differences will be revealed. The common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium, in general flowers earlier than angelica Angelica sylvestris, but the two overlap during late August and September. Hogweed takes its common name from the facts that they were once gathered and fed to pigs. Not all flowers have attractive scents such as the rose many have an odour intended to attract flies the main pollinators. Hogweed is one of these the flowers they emit an odour similar to that of pigs. The flower head is a flat umbrella-like structure {umbel} with grey white flowers, the outer petals of the umbel being larger than those in the centre. The flower head of angelica is domed and the flowers have a pinkish or brownish tinge. The three to five lobed leaves of the common hogweed are broad and the terminal lobe is usually the largest. The leaves of angelica are quite different they are neatly divided much more open. Triangular in outline they may be over thirty centimetres long.

Both of these plants have been used both for culinary and medicinal purposes. In the case of angelica garden varieties have been cultivated Angelica archangelica being the most familiar. The stems of this species has been candied and used in cake decorations for centuries. The pale green stems can be candied at home. Angelica is also used medicinally to treat many ailments. A tea made from from young leaves is said to be good for alleviating tension and associated nervous head aches. The roots, stalks, leaves and seeds have all been put to medicinal uses. Older herbals describe angelica has being excellent for treating the diseases of the urinary organs though it should never be given to anyone who suffers from diabetes. In medieval times it was recommended to fight the symptoms of the plague. Another use of the plant may be of interest to gardeners. Cut the hollow stalks into convenient lengths and palce them among such plants as chrysanthemums and dahlias to trap pests such as earwigs. An elderly acquaintance of mine has had great success with it, the stems being emptied into a bucket of water every morning.

Common hogweed on the other hand is still a wild flower of the fields. Nevertheless it has been put to culinary uses for centuries. The young stems were collected in spring and boiled or braised. A recipe that I have used for many years is as follows. You will need 8-9 tender stalks about 20-30 cm long .Tie them into bundles then place them in salted, boiling water for 15-20 minutes. The water is then drained off and the stems served with butter as a vegetable.

The young leaves collected in spring before they are fully open can be boiled and incorporated into mashed potato and served with corn beef that has been diced and shallow fried until crisp and brown.

Again correct identification is essential and it is of paramount importance, do not gather the Giant Hogweed -Heracleum mantegazzianum, which is toxic and dangerous by mistake. The giant hogweed was introduced to our shores in 1893 as an ornamental plant for Victorian gardens from where it escaped into the countryside. It now colonises many stretches of our rivers and wasteland. It can form dense colonies which are detrimental to our native species which are suppressed by its giant leaves. In the case of riverbanks this may well lead to bare patches during the winter which allows erosion to occur. The 50,000 seeds that each plant is capable of producing may be easily washed down stream where they can colonise new areas.

Indeed the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 ( England's statutory law to protect wildlife) states that it is an offence under section 14(2) of the Act to "plant or otherwise cause to grow in the wild" any plant listed in Schedule 9 part 11. This includes giant hogweed.

HAZARD WARNING--- The Environment Agency gives this health warning----" the stems, edges and under side of the leaves bear small hairs containing poisonous sap, and the slightest touch may cause painful blistering and severe skin irritation. Unshaded habitats with high soil nitrate levels tend to produce greater quantities of toxin to occur in the plant. Contact with cut material in sunlight produces a skin reaction in almost all cases. Blistering symptoms occur within 24-48 hours after exposure and dense pigmentation is visible for 3-5 days. This may persist for 6 years or more".

The local countryside Rangers are not allowed to cut giant hogweed unless they are Wearing protective clothing and eye protection.

Another well known member of the family is the hemlock Conium maculatum. All parts of this plant are poisonous, however, science has revealed that the seeds hold the highest amount of coniine which has caused fatalities. The plant can achieve the height of over 2 meters. It is found in the margins of damp situations such as rivers, streams and ditches, however, they may also be found on roadsides and on waste land. This species has furrowed stems which are blotched with purple markings a salient feature.. The leaves are fern like in appearance the lower ones triangular in outline and quite large. The umbrella -like flower heads are relatively small being 2-5cm across. They tend to flower in June and July in England. The plant is similar to another member of the family the sweet cicely -Myrrhis odorata but the stem of this species is void of blotches. Also the stem and leaves of sweet cicely emit a strong smell of aniseed when broken or crushed.

So as we have seen this interesting group of plants, which contain many more species , can cause confusion. However, there are excellent books and web sites that will help to identify each of them. It should be noted that anyone trying a herb for the first time they should try a small amount only to check their tolerance level.

When preparing medicinal preparations from wild herbs it is also important to know which part of the plant to use ie, root. leaves, stem, seeds etc,etc. How much of the part to use ie, some preparations will only use say 1g of dried herb to 1litre of water. Indeed should the herb be used fresh or dried in a decoction or infusion, so on and so on. Among these very hub pages you will find a variety of ready made preparations you can order. There are also many articles on alternative medicine such as the Bach flower remedies. Shalini Kaga as an excellent hub page which details some Bach flower remedies which may be of interest to the reader, well worth a visit.

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Comments 5 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi Peggy thank you for the visit. It takes many years of experience to tell certain species apart. But recognizing species adds to the experience of any walk. Best wishes to you


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Your hubs are always so informative and well researched. I think that I will leave the picking of wild plants to experts and not risk-averse effects of eating poisonous ones. Amazing how some poisonous ones look so similar to other plants that are safe to eat! Voted useful and up!


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

I would like to thank anyone who takes the time to leave a comment on Wild Parsley and Time. All comments are appreciated.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

In my opinion they are delicious but, as with all food the taste may not suit every one. Your welcome and deserve the mention


Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 6 years ago from India

Thank you so much for the mention - I appreciate it. And thanks for bringing back the goodness of Nature in your very well-researched, detailed, informative hubs. I didn't know the stems of hogweed could be eaten - sounds delicious with butter!

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