Our 2023 EFN seed catalogue is now online! 100+ new varieties. Over 40 different growers and foragers from across the country. A million thanks to all who make this possible, especially our amazing seed-house crew!
Often confused with its treacherous cousin giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), cow parsnip is a smaller and much more useful member of the carrot family. Native to North America, the biennial or short-lived perennial cow parsnip can still grow to be ten feet tall, with leaves up to sixteen inches wide. The large flowers — resembling Queen Anne's lace — can reach a foot across. As the name indicates, it's a popular pasture plant for cows and other livestock. It is also a major part of the diet of many wild animals, from black bears and grizzly bears to butterflies and moths to bees, wasps, and flies. But we're mostly interested in it as a perennial vegetable for human consumption!
Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska (where it is a dominant species in many landscapes), indigenous people have long utilized cow parsnip for food, medicine, dye, and other purposes. It can most easily be compared to celery in terms of flavor and usage, but it is quite unique. The shoots, young stems and leafstalks are the choicest part of the plant, along with the tender flower buds. Mature leaves are not as choice, but can still be added to soups or fermented like cabbage. Larger shoots and stems are often peeled before consuming to prevent an adverse reaction in the mouth.
The plant, especially the exterior parts, contain chemicals that can irritate skin and soft tissue. It should be treated much like domesticated parsnip plants (Pastinaca sativa), which can also cause phytophotodermatitis (skin blistering if skin comes into contact with the sap of the plant and then is exposed to the sun). It also shares this trait with giant hogweed, though that non-native species can cause more severe reactions. But despite the caution required in handling and prepartion of cow parsnip, it is a very popular wild perennial food plant among those who know and love it.
One final word of caution: We strongly recommend you get to know this plant by first growing it in your garden before attempting to forage for it in the wild, for in addition to its resemblance to giant hogweed, it also bears similarities to another carrot-family cousin, the poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Confusing the two in the wild could have deadly consequences. Thankfully, our seed — grown by our friend Aaron Parker of Edgewood Nursery in Falmouth, Maine, with seed originally from the Santa Cruz Mountains in California — is most assuredly cow parsnip.