Spring has reached that moment when the verges of country lanes are white with lacy clouds of Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) umbels. They are magnificent and fleeting, for the foliage of this biennial or short-lived perennial, another member of the Apiaceae, dies back in summer, leaving skeletal brown stalks and seedheads.
Anthriscus sylvestris is known by a variety of English names, though Cow Parsley is the most widely used. Other names include: Queen Anne’s Lace, Kex, Keck, Kecksie, Mother die, Badman’s oatmeal, Blackman’s tobacco, Spanish lace, Rabbit meat and Fairy lace. (See Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for more.) The Plant Lore website explains the stories behind some of them. “Mother die” suggests that bringing the plant indoors may have tragic consequences, perhaps a warning that some related umbellifers (such as Hemlock) are poisonous. The flowers have a heady smell rather like Hawthorn or May (Crataegus) and there are superstitions about bringing those flowers indoors too.
In spite of these beliefs, Cow Parsley makes a good cut flower and it is perfectly edible. As long as you can identify Cow Parsley and tell it apart from any poisonous relatives, it is worth picking the young leaves for use as a Chervil substitute. When crushed between the fingers, they have a strong, almost aniseed-like scent. They are quite pleasant to eat and can be used raw or cooked. The root can be cooked and used as a tonic – the Plants For A Future website has more details. You can also pickle the stems, but again make sure you know your umbellifers as you would only eat pickled Hemlock stems once.
In hedgerows, Cow Parsley is followed by Rough Chervil, Chaerophyllum temulum, which flowers from May to July, and Upright Hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, which flowers from July to September. In parts of northern England and Scotland, Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata, takes its place. In northern Finland, Cow Parsley is a native of broad-leaved forests and it looks lovely growing under trees in dappled shade, such as in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich.
Cow Parsley can be invasive in the garden, though it looks lovely in wilder areas. I currently have just one plant of the dark form, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, which has purple leaves and a pink tinge to the flowers. It should do well on our light sandy soil, in semi-shade. Plants will usually self-seed and the trick to keeping your variety true to form is to weed up any green-leaved seedlings. I first saw a mass of it growing in the garden of the National Trust’s Townend in Cumbria and decided I wanted some.