Tuesday August 11 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The good, the bad and the ugly

Posted on April 12 2011 at 12:10:28 0 comments

Cow parsley

Mary Green examines the characteristics of a common plant family.

That warm weather in late March made all the late flowers and leaves rush out and catch up. The cherry-plum, blackthorn and plum all blossomed at once, followed closely by the damson and cherry.

One strange temporary casualty of the cold winter was the white dead nettle. This is such a tough plant that it usually blooms all winter and is certainly one of the first in spring. This year – no sign! It finally came back in the warm sun at the end of March. Cowslips and the first bluebell appeared in early April, and everything looks gorgeous.

The first thing to do in May is make sure you’ve seen the bluebells. At the time of writing I’m not sure when the open week at Peck Wood, Rowney Green, is. It is usually the last week of April or first week of May.

Even if you miss that, there are lots of other places to go. Try Pinfold Wood in the Lickeys, accessible from Barnt Green, the beautiful Segbourne Coppice on the Waseley Hills, the Old Orchard in Barnt Green and the bank by Blackwell Road on the way there, Shortwood above the canal tunnel, or the Winsel and Beaconwood on the edge of the Lickeys – all of these are described in my last year’s walks. A copy of the walks is still available by email via The Village. Enjoy the may blossom too.

The Village Society is doing a “footpath” display in St Laurence’s Church as part of the flower festival on May 14–15. This will include wild flowers.

People often ask me if it’s OK to pick flowers. There was a well-publicised incident in March when a family were questioned by police after picking daffodils in a park. Actually the rules are a little complicated. You mustn’t pick from flowers grown in parks and public gardens. You mustn’t pick on private land without permission (Peck Wood ban it) or from nature reserves or other protected places.

However, in the wild and on waysides, so long as you have right of access, you can pick the “four Fs” – flowers, foliage, fruit and fungi.

What you must not do is uproot a plant: this is illegal. You should pick reasonably – take a few from each place, don’t strip an area. Never pick anything rare: a general rule is only to pick if there’s lots of it about.

I’m writing this month about some members of one of our most common plant families. Its old Latin name is umbelliferae, which is a nice name as the flowers are always umbrella-shaped. It’s also called the carrot family, a reminder that many of our common vegetables were bred from this family: parsnips, carrots, and many herbs like parsley, fennel and coriander. It also includes the highly poisonous hemlock. Truly good, bad and ugly!

All the umbelliferae have rounded or flattened heads made up of lots of clusters of tiny flowers. Some are delicate and airy, some big and solid; some tall, some small, and mostly white. They have much-divided leaves: think of flat-leaved parsley, celery or carrot.

Wherever you go in May, you can’t avoid my first one: cow parsley. The names are sometimes confused, and some people call all umbelliferae hedge parsley or cow parsley, but they are different plants. One way to tell them apart is by flowering times.

If it’s out in abundance on all the hedges and towpaths in April and May – it’s cow parsley! An alternative name for it is Queen Anne’s Lace, a much prettier name than its rather ugly common one. And it is lacy and delicate and frothy – one of the true spring beauties.

The name “cow” just means it is a more down-to-earth and common variety of parsley. And, like the cultivated parsley, the young leaves are edible throughout March, providing a tasty herb in the still-barren Lenten days. In mild winters the leaves are there from January.

However, another old name for it was “mother-die”. This name was given to several of the umbelliferae, and reflects their often poisonous nature. Children were taught not to eat any of these plants, as they are hard to tell apart especially when in young leaf. Cow parsley is “good” and safe if you pick it early in the year, but don’t if you’re not sure.

After cow parsley, in June, comes a similar plant called rough chervil. It is less exuberant and coarser. Next comes hedge parsley, in July and August. This is very pretty and delicate, with flowers that are sometimes pinkish. Neither of these are edible.

There is another parsley called fool’s parsley, which I have had in my garden, and which also grows on cultivated fields. It flowers in July and August. It is identified by having long spiky bracts hanging down behind the flowers, but otherwise looks like cow-parsley. It smells nasty when crushed. It is distinctly poisonous – definitely one of the “bad” ones.

The other very common member of the family is hogweed. This is the ugly one, at least at first glance. The leaves are big and coarse and the plant grows tall with huge strong flower-heads.

It grows everywhere, flowering throughout the summer and often having another flowering in a mild winter.
This is the one that leaves big sculptural seed-heads for the winter. As kids, we used to use the hollow stems as pea-shooters! However, the flower heads close up are beautiful, like lace doilies. Insects love them. The young shoots are edible, so this one is good, if a little ugly.

There is a notorious “bad” variant called giant hogweed, introduced to Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental plant. It is a huge (up to ten feet) handsome plant with more dissected leaves and spaced-out flower-heads; when you see it, it is quite unmistakeable.

I have not seen it round here but have elsewhere. It is a forbidden plant to grow now, as it has a poison that irritates the skin. So if you ever find one, don’t touch!

Two family members that are very common in other places are sweet cicely and alexanders. I have not found sweet cicely anywhere here except my garden! It is profuse in the North of England, flowering in May. It has very pretty feathery leaves and close-packed pure white flowers. The whole plant smells strongly of aniseed, so it is easy to identify.

You can cook the leaves and stems with stewed fruits to sweeten and flavour them. The seed pods are long and distinctive, and are eaten widely as a wayside nibble. This one is very good!

Alexanders usually grow profusely by the sea. For some reason there is one near the canal bridge on Callow Hill in Alvechurch. Sometimes seaside plants are carried along roads and railways, and they like road salt. It is big and bold and has dark glossy green leaves and greenish-yellow flower heads. This too is edible, the young shoots and flower heads being used as greens. If you see it, please don’t pick it, as it’s rare around here.

Another seaside one is the wild carrot, which grows on cliff pastures and chalky soils. It is quite low-growing; the flowers are pinkish and then pure white, very close and rounded in shape. The leaves look carroty and it smells of carrot, but is not good to eat, though harmless.

Another very common plant is the pignut. This looks like a small cow parsley but has distinctive fine feathery leaves. It grows in old rough pasture and woods – and in many churchyards. If you were to dig it up (don’t without permission) you would find a highly edible swollen root – the “nut” of its name. It flowers in May and June. So that’s more that are good to eat.

If you walk along the canal in July, you are very likely to see hemlock water dropwort. This is a big handsome plant with celery-like leaves and bold flower-heads. It is, as the name hints, poisonous, so avoid it. Apparently it is a common cause of poisoning among settlers from eastern Europe, who mistake it for the wild celery they pick and eat at home.

True hemlock is not common round here. It grows on damp roadsides and river banks, flowering late in the summer, looking rather like a tall cow parsley. It has purple-blotched stems and a bad smell, and is very poisonous. This is the real bad and ugly one, and the reason people are told to be suspicious of the harmless cow parsley. Hemlock has been used as a poison for centuries, and poisoned the Greek philosopher Socrates. 

At the same time, late summer, there is a delightful plant along our canals – wild angelica. It is another tall bold plant, and has purplish stems and a purple tint to its flower heads. The leaves are broad rather than feathery, and the flower-heads dense.

You can identify it easily by breaking off a stem and sniffing it. The angelica smell is unmistakeable and reminds me of childhood cakes and trifles! You can use the stems to flavour and sweeten fruit.

One of my favourites (contrary to most people!) is ground elder, also known as goutweed. This is a pervasive garden weed with quite broadly segmented leaves (looking like those of the elder tree) and a cow-parsley like flower in May and June.

The leaves appear in March or even February and are highly edible. They form part of my spring “gardener’s revenge” mixture, which I enjoy eating. If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!

I have noticed an ornamental variety with variegated leaves being cultivated in gardens too. So though many people think it both bad and ugly, it is really a good one, and its alternative name hints at its medicinal use in the past.

I have only described the more common varieties here. There are lots more! One that I was pleased to find was in Eades Meadow. It is called pepper saxifrage, and is immediately recognisable by its yellow flowers. It only grows in old, undisturbed meadow land.

Another yellow-green one is fennel, which has very feathery leaves, and is not a true native. Celery, dill, caraway and parsnip occur in wild forms.
Finally, there are some more unusual seaside ones. Samphire, a fleshy pungent plant, is on the menus of posh restaurants these days, and sea holly, a beautiful blue-tinged shoreline plant with holly-like leaves, is in demand from gardeners.

Next time you are out, I can almost guarantee you’ll see a member of the fascinating umbelliferae family. They have been used as medicine, as culinary herbs, as cut flowers, as ornamental garden plants, as vegetables, and even as deadly poison.

My poem this month was written for an old friend of mine, and is about the power of music.


I’m visiting old friends.
A thin, balding man who
Always wanted to be a rock star
But instead worried about his
Children and parents and grandchildren
World poverty, war and peace
The job he loved and hated.

At Christmas his wife gave him
A Fender Stratocaster.
It is white and glamorous
And lives in a black fur lined box.
He takes it out.

I watch him crouched, plugging it in
To a small cube speaker.
He touches it.
A wild long wail of music loops around the room
Winding my heart into impossible memories.
He becomes Hendrix
I can see his hair growing
Rainbows break out on his flaring jeans.

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