Cow Parsnip or Wild Celery

Cow Parsnip or Wild Celery
Heracleum lanatum

The cow parsnip, also called wild celery, is a large plant, up to 10 feet (3 meters) tall, with a stout grooved stem and large compound leaves divided into three leaflets. Each leaflet is 1/2 to 1 1/2 feet (15 to 50 cm.) wide, somewhat maplelike in shape with coarse, irregularly cut margins. The stem and leaf stalks are densely hairy; they clasp the main stem at the base. Flowers form large, broad umbels, often 14 inches (36 cm.) or more across and flat-topped. Individual flowers are very small and white.

This species occurs around the northern Pacific Ocean up into interior Alaska and across Canada. (Hulten) It is common along roadsides in the Alaska Range.

The plant contains an unidentified volatile oil. (Spoerke) To me its odor is powerful and distinctly medicinal.

Two species of Heracleumfrom the Himalayas contain coumarins that can be used to produce xanthotoxin, a dermal photosensitizing agent. (Kumar, Banerjee & Handa)

Medicinal uses:
The fruit, green parts, and root of cow parsnip are all pulverized to make poultices and tonics. For arthritis, grease the root, steam it, and split it. Leave it on the affected spot overnight. (According to de Laguna, cow parsnip root is used by the brown bear when wounded.)

Warren Smith reports that cow parsnip is much used in tonics for colds and sore throats. The root is Tanaina medicine for colds, sore throat, mouth sores, and tuberculosis. Chew the root raw or boil it in water and drink the tea.

Hall says to eat cow parsnip to calm the nerves.

Densmore cites the leaves and stem as a rubefacient, the roots as carminative and stimulant in the tradition of the Chippewa Indians.

Culinary uses:
Be sure to peel cow parsnip stem before you eat it, as the hairs are irritating to the mouth. And be sure to distinguish this plant from the poisonous water hemlock that it resembles (see illustration on page 8). Young leaf stalks and stems can be eaten raw, although cooking improves the flavor.

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Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck