Cow Parsnip

Heracleum lanatum – Cow Parsnip

Cow ParsnipHeracleum lanatum

Heracleum = hay-ra-klee-um, L. Hercules healer (a name used by Theophrastus);

lanatum = L. “woolly”;

Identification: Cow parsnip is a herb 1-2 m high with leaves 30 cm broad and palmately-veined. The flowers are small, sweetly scented, in large compound umbels. The stems are stout and hollow. The fruit is flat and winged at the edges. Great care should be taken in selecting this plant as it looks like water hemlock which is deadly poisonous.

Distribution & Habitat: Cow parsnip is the commonest member of the carrot family in the Rocky Mountains. It is found growing in moist hollows along intermittent streams, among willow and other thickets, throughout the region.

Preparation & Uses: The cooked roots of the cow parsnip are said to taste much like rutabagas but I find them very distasteful. The very young leaves are delicious and are eaten in salads or cooked, but as they grow older they become too strong. The young stems of this common herb can be peeled and eaten raw but are best cooked. The hollow basal portion of the plant may be cut into short lengths, then dried and used as a substitute for salt. The leaves as well may be dried and the ashes used instead of salt. The flower stem, before the flower opens, may be peeled and the inner portion eaten raw like celery, or boiled until tender. The seeds, both ripe and unripe, can be sparingly added to salads for seasoning.

Blackfoot Indians cut up the stem into small pieces which were dipped in blood and stored for used in soups or broths. The Cree called it pickqua-nahtick. They put small pieces of the root onto a sore tooth and spat out the saliva. The Cree also used the root as a poultice for swellings, after fast boiling it.

The Blackfoot called it po-kint-sam and used the stem ritually in the Sun Dance. They used the fresh, young stems in a brew to treat diarrhea. An infusion of young stems was applied in the removal of warts. An infusion of the roots was used as a horse medicine and for respiratory trouble. The horse was held down and the solution administered through a blowing tube held to the nostril or the mouth.

The best use I have found for cow parsnip is as toilet paper. The leaves are large enough to be very convenient. This can be a very important use! A small percentage of people have skin sensitivity to this plant so they should check this out before getting a rash from “Nature’s toilet paper”.

The roots and seeds are considered antispasmodic, carminative and expectorant. The seeds are used in the same way as dill seeds for colic and flatulence. Dried roots (less acrid than fresh roots) can be made into a tea and drunk for nausea, used for gas and hiatus hernia. Tincture of the seed is also used for nausea, even just a few drops on the tongue. In the mid-19th century, a strong decoction of the root was drunk daily for several weeks and said to cure paralysis, epilepsy and to correct double vision. For paralysis, it mostly affects the spinal cord, though it is also known to be effective for sciatica. It can also be massaged into the area in the form of an oil or made into a poultice. These two preparations require the fresh, not dried, root. The fresh, green seed tincture of cow parsnip has an effective analgesic property when applied to a sore tooth, similar to clove oil. Moore, in fact, considers it stronger than the latter. Both roots and seed have been used for calming down a nervous spastic colon.

This plant was often found in the medicine bundles of hunters. It was said to attract deer to the initiate but was evil for the non-initiated. The leaves are known to work as a mild insect repellent. The seeds have been used for severe headache by the Meskwaki Indians.