Botanical name…Heracleum sphondylium

“Heracleum” origin unknown. Could be from Hercules, the hero of classic mythology known for his strength.                  

“sphondylium” from Greek “spondylos”, meaning vertebrae, referring to shape of segmented stem. 

“Hogweed” is a British native plant, unlike it’s dangerous big brother, “Giant Hogweed” (Heracleum mantegazzianum). Giant Hogweed can grow to a height of 15 foot ( which could be why Hercules is involved?) and  was imported by the Victorians to decorate lakesides and gardens. Hogweed, a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), was used as fodder for pigs, hence it’s common name. It is also one of a group of plants whose flowers do not have a sweet nectar smell. Hogweed’s nectar is said to smell of dung and pigs, which attracts midges, flies and hoverflies. It was rated in the top 10 for most nectar production (nectar per unit cover per year) in a UK plants survey supported by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative. “Hogweed” also known as “Cow Parsnip” (different to “Cowparsley”), “Gypsy’s Lace”, “Cowbumble” ,”Eltrot”, and “Keck. The dry, hollow stems were used by children as pea shooters and water pistols, and by adults as drinking straws for cider.

Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium
Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium

“Hogweed” is said to be one of the best tasting forager’s food, available in the UK. The shoots are best blanched and cooked in butter, having a similar flavour to asparagus. The leaves can be used when young as flavouring for soups and stews, the flower buds can be used like broccoli, and the seeds are a direct replacement for cardamom. The roots have an intense aromatic quality, akin to angelica, and can be cooked like parsnips.

Hogweed also comes with a health warning. As the leaves develop, they contain sap that can sensitise the skin to bright sunlight, to the point where blisters appear. This depends on the stage of growth of the plant, and the specific phenotype of individual plants. If in doubt, wear gloves during picking!

In herbal medicine, it’s use was limited. Hogweed oil was used as a sedative and expectorant. Culpeper, who seemed to find a medicinal use for most things (?!!), boiled the seeds and then applied to runny ears. I suspect that this did little to help the poor patient, and probably made a “pig’s ear” of the situation!

Until recently, I dismissed the white umbrellas of flowers seen on everyday walks as “a type of Cow Parsley”. How wrong I have been. The book, “Umbellifers of the British Isles”, informs us of 73 different species. Hogweed is often the last one of the family standing, as winter approaches.

Simon Papworth   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *