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Cow Parsnip Heracleum maximum (Heracleum lanatum)


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Cow Parsnip
credit: Danielle Langlois/CCSA

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Alternate name: American Cow Parsnip

Family: Apiaceae, Carrot view all from this family

Description Very tall perennial herb with very large leaves and white flat-topped or rounded flower clusters where each stalk rises up from almost the same point or umbels like in geraniums, milkweed and onions. Stems are stout, hairy, grooved and succulent.
Flowers: Always white flower clusters characteristic of the carrot family (Apiaceae) anywhere from 8-12"(20-30 cm) across; 5 petals per flower with ones at cluster edges larger, sometimes tinged purple.
Leaves: Anywhere from 6-16" (15-40 cm) across, round, divided into 3 lobes, each 3-6" (7.5-15 cm) wide, with jagged, saw-toothed edges.
Fruit: Flat, oval and broader above the middle.
Height: 4-10'(1.2-3 m).

Warning This plant can cause dermatitis on contact. It is edible, but because the flowers resemble those of Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata), which is extremely poisonous, great care must be taken in identifying it.

Flower February through September.

Habitat At least partially shady and moist locations with loamy soil up to 9,000' (2,700 m) elevation.

Range All of the United States (except for the Gulf Coast states, Hawai'i, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia) and every Canadian province and territory(except for Nunavut).

Discussion Also known as Indian Celery or Pushki, Cow Parsnip is the only member of the Hogweed genus native to North America. It is the largest species of the carrot family (Apiaceae) in North America. The genus is named for Hercules who is believed to have used it for medicinal purposes. Many Native American peoples also used one part or another to aid in healing. Immature stalks and leaf stems were used for food with the outer skin peeled and producing a sweetish flavor.

It is important to note that the juices of all parts contain a phototoxin that can act on contact with skin and exposure to ultraviolet light, causing anything from a mild rash to a blistering, severe dermatitis, depending on the sensitivity of the individual. The plant is a weed especially in pastures, where it can ruin the milk of cows that eat it.