Plant russian roulette?

13th January 2013

No snow yet, but it’s on its way.  Still time to pick stuff from the roadsides before it’s thoroughly covered over.  Today’s blog is a controversial one.  Have a look at the two pictures below.

These plants were growing on the same verge literally 2 metres apart, the plant on the left is Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris sometime called Wild Chervil and the plant on the right is Hemlock Conium maculatum one of our most toxic plant species.  Hopefully from the picture it should be apparent how similar looking they are and how you: firstly must be certain of your identification but also how you need to check every leaf you pick and not just assume that all the plants growing together are the same species.

Both these plants are again in the Apiaceae family (I mentioned in a previous blogt that there were alot of species in this family), and it is mainly becuase of the similarity of these two species that many people shy away from the whole family and sometimes foraging in general.  I personally feel that it’s worth taking the time and effort to learn how to distinguish them early on in your foraging journey.  Once the difference are learnt you can then adopt the same rules for foraging any edible plant or fungi……….if you are not 100% certain, leave it alone and check every specimen that goes in the basket.

Later in the year identifying Cow Parsley and Hemlock becomes quite straight forward.  Hemlock is distinctive during the summer as it’s stem is smooth and green with distinct dark purple spots.  It is these that give rise to the second part of it’s latin name, maculatum which means “speckled”.  The stems of Cow Parsley are green or sometimes purple tinged, are hollow and have distinct ridges. Also Cow Parsley tends to be shorter and flower a few weeks earlier although niether of these features on their own should be used to identify it.

The problem is that the best time to utilise Cow Parsley is over winter and early spring (by summer it becomes tough and bitter tasting) but the stems haven’t developed so identiication is a little bit harder.

Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook has some very useful tables for identifying several Apiaceae species and is highly recommended. Here we are focusing on simply distinguishing between Cow Parsley and Hemlock at this time of year.

The stems on Hemlock leaves are round and hollow they tend to be green and smooth and hairless. The leaves are more finely divided the Cow Parsley, are smoother, hairless and shinier. When crushed the plant has an unpleasant, fetid smell described as smelling of mouse urine (these days most people don’t know what mouse urine smells like).

The stems on Cow Parsley have a groove on the upper surface (like celery stems) are generally solid all the way through, often take on a purplish tinge and have fine downy hairs. The leaves are a slightly bluer-green colour, rougher and with a more mat appearance.  The smell of Cow Parsley when crushed is sweet and parsley like with a slight aniseed scent to it.

Also be aware that there are several other members of this family which are superficially similar some of which are toxic, noteably Fools Parsley Aethusa cynapium which also smells unpleasant and Rough Chervil Chaerophyllum temulum which doesn’t smell unpleasant but doesn’t have the sweet smell of Cow Parsley and is much more coarsely haired, almost bristly.  For me the smell of Cow Parsley is the key thing, learn what it smells like and crush a leaf on every frond picked and check the smell.

Cow Parsley can be used as a herb just like it’s cultivated cousin Chervil.  It’s Parsley/Aniseed flavour goes particularly well with fish, use it like you would Parsley in a sauce. It also goes well with potatoes; chopped and mixed into mash or with new potates, olive oil and lemon juice. To make a “chefy” garnish with Cow Parsley click here.

By contrast Hemlock amongst other alkaloid contains Coniine which acts on the central nervous system causing paralysis which also affects the cardiac and respiratory system.  It was administered as a poison to prisoners in ancient Greece and it was a drink of Hemlock that was used to kill Socrates.  As few as 6-8 leaves are said to be enough to cause fatalities.

Kev Palmer

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