Cow parsnip is an elegant blooming perennial native to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. It is common in forested areas as well as grasslands, shrub lands, meadows, alpine regions and even riparian habitats. This vigorous plant is an important forage species for numerous animals. What does cow parsnip look like? Read on for more cow parsnip information and a guide to identifying the species.
What Does Cow Parsnip Look Like?
Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) is easy to confuse with several other plants in the carrot family. Some of these plants can actually be dangerous, so identification is extremely important. What is cow parsnip? It is an herbaceous, flowering wild plant that develops umbels of tiny white flowers in a cloud atop tall stems. The plants that are similar also develop the same umbels and have similar form. Queen Anne’s lace, water hemlock, poison hemlock and giant hogweed all bear the same flower type and have similar feathery leaves.
Cow parsnip is a flowering dicot that can grow up to 10 feet in height. It is characterized by large 1 to 1 ½ foot across serrated, palmate leaves. The stems are erect, stout and have small thorn-like protuberances. The flowers are a creamy white, lacy flat-topped cluster that may grow up to a foot in diameter. This smaller flower size is one key to ruling out the poisonous giant hogweed, which has 2-foot wide blooms and can grow up to 20 feet tall. Cow parsnip growing conditions are similar to this plant, but its cousins, Queen Anne’s lace and poison hemlock, prefer drier locations and water hemlock is a riparian plant.
Cow Parsnip Information
Cow parsnip’s relatives are all poisonous to one degree or another. Can you eat cow parsnip? It is not toxic, but the juice can cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Washing the affected area and avoiding sunlight for a few days can reduce irritation.
The plant is eaten by deer, elk, moose and livestock. In fact, it is even planted as forage. Native Americans ate the inside of the stem and boiled the roots to extract the sugar. The plant is also known as Indian parsley or Indian rhubarb. By contrast, its relatives poison hemlock and water hemlock are deadly and giant hogweed is extremely toxic to skin, causing large weeping, painful blisters. Queen Anne’s lace’s sap is less toxic but can cause skin irritation.
Cow Parsnip Growing Conditions
Differentiating the 5 species can be done by the sizes of the plants and their flowers but also by the areas in which they grow. Cow parsnip may be found in United States Department of Agriculture zones 3 to 9. It originated in Europe but naturalized in the United States and across Canada.
It grows best in moist, shady locations but also thrives in open, drier areas. The plant prefers loam or sandy loam with good drainage. Cow parsnip may be found as an understory species but also in sub-arctic alpine zones.
This lovely plant is important in many ecosystems and is an attractive wildflower to grow in a perennial garden.