The name ‘Common Hogweed’ conjures up visions of ‘Me mate Dave down the pub’ but this bristly woodland margin plant is anything but. Yes, it is a cousin of the phytotoxic Giant Hogweed – you know, the one with ginormous leaves 1m long with skin-blistering sap once said skin is exposed to sunlight?! However, this diminutive relative is safe to eat for most people. (Some unlucky folks, particularly those with skin conditions such as eczema, may still react to the sap of Common Hogweed.) If in doubt, try a small amount out on your skin before eating any. Take a really good look at the leaves – do they look like large, baggy, single hawthorn leaves? If so, a good sign it is hogweed. if you haven’t already, please familiarise yourself with what Poison Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort leaves look like. They are very lacy and look very different. Also, the stem of Hogweed is bristly and has ridges running down it. Hemlock stems are smooth and have purple blotches. To be honest you are more likely to confuse Hogweed with Hemlock Water-Dropwort, as this has ridged stems too, but they are hairless and shiny. The leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort are very different too.
These above show Common Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylum, which rarely grows more than 2m high, with flower heads up to 20cm across. Giant Hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, grows to 4m, with enormous flowerheads 50cm across. The stem of the poisonous Giant Hogweed also has purple blotches on it, a common sign the plant is telling you to step off a bit! You most often find Giant Hogweed as an ornamental near ponds in large gardens. Though I remember finding some on the roadside on the way to a NYE warehouse party on the outskirts of London, and picking one of the huge sputnik-like flower heads to turn myself into a Wood Nymph at said party. At the time I had no idea of the toxicity of this plant, being much younger and really rather merry by then. Thankfully none of us came to any harm, and I had a banging time at the party!
Hemlock Water-Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)is below. The leaves are much more pinnate (divided), shiny, and hairless. It is normally found near water. It smells of bleach when crushed or cut. (Yup, it’s trying to tell you something.)
So scary stuff out the way, what can you do with Common Hogweed? Loads. This plant is awesome, and provides through several seasons.
First, use the fresh growth of Spring to make Hogweed Lacto-fermented Kimchi. If you don’t know what a lacto-ferment is, it is when you sink your plant material in salty water to create an anaerobic environment for those friendly bacteria you get in yoghurt. This enhances the taste of the plant and preserves it, also making it more digestible. Once you have this, you can make Hogweed Borscht, a delicious Russian recipe made with the juice and leaves of fermented Hogweed, lots of beetroot and a dollop of sour cream. Add blinis and shots of good vodka for a proper Russian dinner!
Next, look out for the immature, furled green flower heads that are still within a sort of ‘bag’. Pick one from each plant (this means the plants will all be able to reproduce). You can tempura them in batter, or steam them for a few minutes if you are on a diet! They are filling and taste amazing, with a crunchy texture.
If you have missed the boat and all the flower heads have unfurled, never mind. There is more to come! Soon you will find bunches of green, flattish seeds with two darker stripes down the middle. These are what has been used in days of yore as a condiment for milk puddings! It’s a shame they aren’t used so much nowadays, as they really do impart a stunning flavour similar to star anise, and there is ruddy loads of them everywhere you look.
To prepare, pick a couple of whole green seed heads and shuck off the seeds into a pestle and mortar. Crush them slightly – no need to obliterate them – you just want the flavour to infuse whatever they are put in. Make Hogweed Vodka by steeping the seeds in a jar full to the brim with vodka – a sure fire party pleaser! My enduring memory of this drink is of my friend Joe, a boxer and fellow boater, swapping half a bottle of this with me in exchange for some beer (as I didn’t want to get completely pie-eyed). The next morning I saw him slumped in a chair outside his boat, in a semi comatose state, with his girlfriend scolding him, having necked the lot. So be warned – a little bit goes a long way! Add a shot to a cocktail with some cream…mmmm.
Milk puddings go so well with this herb! Try my Hogweed Seed Pannacotta, which I developed on my full day cookery courses with the Parks Trust.
HOGWEED SEED PANNACOTTA
Half a cup of green hogweed seeds
1/2 pint soya milk/normal milk
1 sachet Vegi Gel
2 tbsp honey
Seasonal berries (for sauce & garnish)
1 tbsp butter/margarine
- Slightly crush the hogweed seeds in a pestle and mortar.
- reserve 200ml of the plant milk in a cup.
- Pour the rest of the soya milk into a pan and add the hogweed seeds. Simmer for 5 minutes until you can smell the aroma of anise.
- Strain out the seeds.
- Put the infused milk back in the pan. Add the honey and stir til dissolved.
- Mix the Veg Gel with the cold milk in the cup, then quickly add to the infused milk.
- Bring to the boil, then just as quickly pour into moulds (I use empty china cups).
- Crush the oatmeal biscuits and mix with the melted butter in a bowl.
- Once the milk is firm enough, add the biscuit as a layer on top of the cup. this will be the bottom of your pudding!
- Leave until solidified (several hours in fridge, or 6 hours if no fridge).
- Run a knife around the edge of the pannacotta and tip onto plate. Bang the top (but not too hard!)
- The pannacotta jelly should come out onto the plate.
- Boil some soft seasonal berries n just enough water to cover, and pour once cooled over the pannacottas. garnish with a sprinkle of Hogweed seeds…voila!
They’re out now..so go get ’em tiger…or, um, plant eating beast of some sort.