Exploring my little piece of the planet

Cow Parsnip

or Common Hogweed
Heracleum lanatum (
also H. maximum, H. sphondylium)


According to Botanary, this genus of the carrot family was named for Hercules, who was supposed to have used it first for medicine.

This odoriferous species is indeed a plant of muscle:  important and commanding as probably the largest perennial in our forest.

It grows in rich moist soil in broad and small forest clearings, rising up to almost two metres by July.

Its huge, 30 cm. compound hairy (lanatus) leaves and equally large flower heads provide landing plantforms and important sustinence for a wide range of insects and birds.

In contradiction to its name and in spite its nutritious foliage, Cow Parsnip is often shunned by cattle and can apparently have a souring effect on their milk when they do eat it. Bears have apparently been known to browse on the flower heads in the spring and in the fall the winged, sunflower-like seeds are popular with birds. After the frost, deer, elk, bears and marmots will eat the stems and leaves.

Roots, young leaf stalks and marrow from the hollow stem were used as food, for rituals, as a yellow dye and medicinally by the North American First Nations and early Europeans although care was  taken as sensitive skin can be affected a phototoxin contained in the roots and outer skin.

If you are going to handle Cow Parsnip for any reason it is important that you do not confuse it with other plants of the carrot family that are quite poisonous. Gavan P.L. Watson from Ontario has a good description of the differences here.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
All News in One
Montana Plant Life
Wild Food Girl

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5 responses

  1. Pingback: Cow Parsnip | Find Me A Cure

  2. I’m thoroughly enjoying these specific explorations, Cindy. H. sphondylium is called Hogweed in the UK. Common names, and their differences from region to region, continually fascinate me. And like many of the frothy white flowers of the umbellifers the insects just adore them as well!

    August 10, 2011 at 7:15 am

  3. I agree: common names are fascinating and can be quite confusing. I will add common hogweed to the top of the post as an alternative common name for this plant. I had to look it up again, because there is a European introduction called giant hogweed in North America (Heracleum mantegazzianum) that has become quite invasive in some areas.

    It is just this year that I have discovered for myself just how popular the cow parsnip flower is with insects of so many different kinds. They are so absorbed in their business there that it is a wonderful place to have a good close look at them.

    Thank your for your encouragement on this project, Julian. I have many species I want to post, but I find myself taking hours with each one as I become absorbed in the journeys the research takes me on.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:47 am

  4. Pingback: Goldenrod Crab Spider « The Nature of the Hills

  5. Pingback: Trifolium hybridum | Find Me A Cure

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