Cow parsley is one of the most familiar wild plants of the British countryside. Throughout the month of May, most roadsides are lined with the white flowers, seemingly impervious to traffic pollution, salt-spray and regular mowing by the highway authorities. The plant has a number of local names; hedge parsley, wild chervil and Queen Anne’s lace – the latter apparently arose from the days when Queen Anne travelled in May, people believed the roadsides had been decorated especially for her.
Cow parsley belongs to the family of umbellifers, plants that bear their flowers in umbrella-like clusters. The flowers are small and white, and the plant’s leaves, growing on stalks from the tall, green, furrowed and slightly hairy main stem, are feathery and rather fern-like.
One of the plant’s names, wild chervil, suggests that it has been used as a substitute for cultivated chervil. However, care must be taken when identifying cow parsley as there are a number of similar plants that are either inedible or dangerously poisonous. The most dangerous of these is Hemlock (Conium maculatum), also an umbellifer but an altogether larger plant. Hemlock can best be identified by its smell (like old mice nests) and the purple blotches on its stems. Hemlock is deadly and it was a preparation from this plant that was given to Socrates, the Greek philosopher, as a punishment for despising the democratic government of the time.
- Also known as
- hedge parsley, Queen Anne's lace, wild chervil.
- Height: up to 150 cm
Cow parsley biology
Cow parsley is in flower from April through to June. The plant is a perennial, and produces its seeds from July. The stems die back in late summer but a second growth of non-flowering stems and leaves appears in the autumn, and remains green throughout the winter months.
Cow parsley range
Cow parsley is found over all of Britain and Ireland, except for the extreme west of Ireland and north-west of Scotland. It is common in northern and central Europe but rare around the Mediterranean. It has also become naturalised across much of North America.
Cow parsley habitat
Grows abundantly on roadsides, in hedgerows and along woodland rides and margins.
Cow parsley threats
There are no threats to this species in the UK.
Cow parsley conservation
There are no conservation projects in the UK for cow parsley.
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- Term used to describe a species that was originally introduced from another country, but becomes established, maintains itself and invades native populations.
- Plants that live for at least three seasons; after an initial period they produce flowers once a year.