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Summit Outside: Cow parsnip: more than meets the eye

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Joanne Stolen
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There are a lot of cow parsnip plants in the wetlands south of Breckenridge past Maggie Pond along the Blue River and many are in bloom now. The cow parsnip is also known as Indian celery. The scientific name is heracleum maximum, and implies the very large size of all parts of these plants. Hercules is reputed to have used these plants for medicine.

Cow parsnip is found throughout the United States, except along the Gulf Coast and a few neighboring states. It occurs from sea level to about 9,000 feet, and is especially prevalent in Alaska. It is listed as “endangered” in Kentucky and “special concern” in Tennessee.

Cow parsnip is the largest species of the carrot family in North America. Cow parsnip is a perennial, herbaceous plant growing 3-10 feet tall.



It has the characteristic flower umbels of the carrot family, which may be flat-topped or more rounded, and are always white. The flat umbels are made up of numerous tiny white flowers. Its tiny, white flowers have both male and female parts or occur with only male parts, and are grouped first into small clusters that are again grouped into larger, showier, flat-topped clusters.

The leaves are very large and divided into lobes. Leaves can measure up to 16 inches long and 12 inches wide. Each leaf is made up of three leaflets, with the terminal leaflet generally larger than the basal two. Leaf margins are serrated and lobed.



The stems are grooved, woolly, hollow, stout and are slightly ridged and very hairy. Large swollen regions of the stem are conspicuous, and are really just flower buds waiting to emerge. These swellings can be as large as an orange.

Cow parsnip grows best in moist to semi-wet, well-drained soils on shaded sites, but it can be found in openings and clearings. It prefers loam and sandy loam soils from limestone and shale, but can found on clay and gravelly substrates. It is found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, forest openings, grasslands and areas such as wet meadows, stream terraces and stream and lake margins.

It reproduces by seed, forming a low-growing rosette, with a large, fleshy taproot its first year.

The roots of these plants are covered by water, especially during high water and spring run-off. This is a favorite habitat of animals such as bear, moose, otters, muskrat and elk because of the fresh vegetation and the water.

Some part of the plant usually has a strong aroma, due primarily to various oils produced by the plant. The juices of all parts contain a phototoxin that can act as an allergen on contact with skin and exposure to ultraviolet light, causing anything from a mild rash to a blistering, or dermatitis, depending on the sensitivity of the individual. What happens with some people is the development of a dark discoloration locally where the juice has touched. There may be some pain, sensitivity or itching. The dark color will slowly fade, but sometimes takes longer than a year. If you have very sensitive skin always wear gloves and long sleeves when collecting, and wear pants if walking in an area where cow parsnip is growing.

Various Native American peoples had many different uses for this plant; all parts of it were used by one nation or another. Perhaps the most common use was to make poultices to be applied to bruises or sores. Young stems were peeled, to remove the strong-smelling outer skin, and the mild, sweet inner stem was eaten raw or boiled. Unpeeled stems were sometimes roasted in hot coals. The roots were also used as a cooked vegetable, like parsnip. The young aromatic leaf has a sweet taste.

The dried stems were also used as drinking straws for the old or infirm, and to make flutes for children. A yellow dye can be made from the roots, and an infusion of the flowers can be rubbed on the body to repel flies and mosquitoes.

This is what I found for the adventurous who want to try cow parsnip: Before the plant has flowered is the best time to eat the plant. You might include the flowering bud (before it has flowered) in a stir fry but try boiling, and pouring the water off several times. Apparently they have a flavor somewhat like strong celery. The buds can be dried and used as a spice. The young leaves are milder than the buds, and also can be added to soups and salads. You can use the peeled stem like you would celery.

Cow parsnip is used by herbalists. The root can be used for toothaches (placed directly to the area) or a tincture of the root or seeds. It apparently is less irritating to the gums than cloves. The root and seeds are used as an antispasmodic to the intestinal tract. If used in a tea, it must be dried first. The tea is used for nausea of a persistent nature, when you have not yet vomited, as well as acid indigestion. The seeds tinctured are effective for stomach aches, the dose should be one or two drops. This plant should not be used during pregnancy or nursing. More information can be found in “Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.”

So there is more to a pretty flower than meets the eye.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.


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