Cow parsley, or Anthriscus sylvestris, is so entrenched at the sides of our ditches, waysides and collective consciousness that we are almost blind to its creamy flurry of umbrellalike blossoms, its ferny carrot top fronds of vibrant green. it is often one of the first plants to show its head come Spring. As you may have guessed, it is a member of the Umbellifer or Apiaceae family – that majestic hall of fame that involves some delicious edibles, yet also some that have been used historically as Greek execution poisons. A very good reason to do extensive homework before picking cow parsley, abundant though it may be.
So – here’s the important homework.
We are looking at a plant that starts life as a rosette of 2-3 times pinnate leaves. Pinnate means ‘divided’. So you are looking at how many times the leaf splits into smaller leaflets. The base of the plant, where it meets the ground, may have a pink blush but NOT have spots or blotches. If it has got spots or blotches, avoid it like the plague, as it is likely to be Hemlock (Conium maculatum) with no less than three lethal alkaloids (including conine), and it will send you to the hereafter in half an hour if you mix it in a potato salad. Plants are fighting to survive too, and some fight dirty!
If you pick a stem of cow parsley and hold the stem up to the light, you should be able to just make out a fine line of downy hairs that runs down the length of the stem. The main stems are hollow and slightly ridged, and in times past were used by errant school children as pea shooters.
Hemlock, in contrast, has smooth, perfectly rounded, hairless stems (that are also hollow). The leaves of hemlock are also more finely divided, 3- 4 times, giving them the look of intricate lace. if you look at the leaves and your’e thinking ‘how lovely and lacy’, don’t eat it! I have seen hemlock growing in London that has leaves only 3 times pinnate, so never go by leaf divisions alone to identify cow parsley. Use every sense. This really does come to the fore when the plants flower, as hemlock flowers stink of mouse urine, or the sickly sweet smell of failing kidneys. Listen to the hemlock – its really trying to tell you something! Their flowering seasons are also different, with cow parsley flowering first and hemlock after. Cow parsley rarely grows higher than 1 metre and hemlock can easily overshadow a 2 metre high man. Most poisonings happen when hemlock is young and close to the ground, sometimes growing with cow parsley and an incautious forager tips it in with the rest of their haul. If you think you or someone else may have eaten hemlock, call an ambulance. Fast.
Anthriscus sylvestris can be roughly translated from the Latin as ‘woody chervil’. It is also known as wild chervil, Mother-Die, Queen Anne’s lace or ‘keck’. One can always tell how enshrined a plant is in our traditions and history by the amount of nicknames it has! The rather morbid name of ‘Mother-Die’ came from rural villages, where parents spread the rumour that if a child brought cow parsley into the house, their mother would die. This was probably intended to stop children picking the dangerous hemlock, cowbane, or hemlock water-dropwort by accident. It is a shame that cow parsley has this reputation, which is thoroughly undeserved. It is in fact a harmless edible, with a fresh, slightly peppery taste. However, pregnant women are advised not to eat it (just like they are advised not to eat many other things) as it may contain chemicals which cause the womb to contract. In the past it was used as a contraceptive, though not a very effective one!
Now for the recipes. What can we do with this abundant gift of Nature?
So far I have made lacto-ferments of the finely chopped leaves, which brings out the intensity of the celery flavour. It doesn’t look all that appetising prepared like this, it looks like some gaseous green sludge in a jar with a brown broth on top, but it is bursting with Vitamin C, probiotic bacteria and other elements that have been made more readily digestible. I promise It tastes nice. Really. Try it mixed in a soup, stew, curry, smoothie or sandwich. Anything goes. It adds a tangy, umami richness to an otherwise bland dish.
Used like parsley, cow parley can be chopped and added to a potato salad. It tends to be a bit on the dry side, so dishes with plenty of creaminess such as mayonnaise or white sauce are ideal. The clarifying flavours of cow parsley contrast well with the fats of the other ingredients. Use the fresh stems chopped like celery for that juicy, peppery crunch in a salad with raisins and nuts.
Or try finely chopped leaves in a creamy fish sauce with trout, as chef Heston Blumenthal does with foraging outfit Woodland Ways.
Like I said, don’t be put off foraging for cow parsley. Just do it mindfully – always check the base of each plant as you pick. You will soon get the hang of identifying it. Or else you will die of multiple organ failure. It’s a jungle out there.