Foraging for hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) Apiaceae family

UK guide to foraging for hogweed. Learn to identify, then discover its many food and medicine uses.

This plant changed my life. Ever since reading Roger Philips’ superb book ‘Wild food’, more than 20 years ago, foraging for hogweed has become one of my favourite  wild food pleasures.

No author could say “unequivically the best vegetable I eat”, without meaning it. He was absolutely right! And for me, there are just a handful of other plants worthy of the same attention as I give to this plant during the spring.

Hogweed grows in all manner of settings.
Hogweed is a constant herbal companion, being there almost everywhere we go.

Every April I look forward with relish to the new leaf shoots, knowing how quickly dinner can be picked, and how tasty it will be!

Yes, there are some real toxicity dangers in foraging for hogweed, as there are with many carrot family plants. There is also a shed load of absolute tosh written about this plant on social media. So, these dangers are discussed at the end of this article.

Before picking anything though, all beginner foragers out there are advised to read my article on starting out foraging, as well this overview of Britain’s poisonous plants.

Antique French botanical illuatration.

What’s in a name?

The generic part of the scientific name, Heracleum, is from the old Greek word for the plant – Hērákleios, literally meaning ‘of Heracles’. In Greek mythology, he was the son of Zeus.

The specific part of the name sphondylium comes from an old Greek word spondylos, meaning ‘a vertebrae’. This refers to the stem segments.

The common English name ‘hogweed’ is apparantly attributed to the smell of the flowers resembling the smell of pigs. I can’t say that my nose detects a smell of hogs, but odours are in the nose of the beholder I suppose. Also, I have only spent a small amount of time with pigs!

In Russia and other Slavic speaking areas of East Europe, the plant is known as ‘Borschevnic’. The English name for the East European soup, Borscht, as well as the Polish name ‘Barszcz’, take their names directly from hogweed.

The plant is also called ‘cow parsnip’, but this name is much more commonly used in the U.S. than here.

Botanical description

A little bit of botanical language will follow, though I keep it to a minimum. If you do get stuck on a word here, simply visit the foragers glossary.

 

Leaves: Hogweed has very variable leaves. In this respect it is a great plant teacher. It shows us the individuality of plants within a species population, and reminds us, that just like the human species, there really aren’t two of them that look exactly alike.

I don’t yet know many other wild plants that can be so obviously variable as hogweed. Smooth sow thistle maybe?

Hogweed has extremely variable leaf form, so always use the petioles.
Hogweed has extremely variable leaf form, so always use the petioles to I/D.

Hogweed has large, triangular shaped, dark green leaves. Unlike the majority of others in the family, their leaves are only 1- pinnate. It’s leaves are notable for the terminal leaflet always being 3- lobed.

Contrast their foliage to others in the family, such as wild chervil, hemlock, hedge parsley, alexanders, wild angelica, or ground elder. Quite different.

Hogweed leaf form demonstrating why the leaf is shaped the way that it is. To allow for maximum sunlight capture.
Looking at hogweed provides many valuable insights. Like how the different leaf forms maximise sunlight capture.

Hogweed leaves can reach 50 cm long. On close inspection, each leaflet lobe has serrate margins.

Hogweed’s hairy leaves produce a silver sheen as they catch dappled sunlight.

Their leaves are hairy and a little coarse to the touch. They can produce a silver sheen where dappled sunlight strokes them.

 

Petioles: Depending on where you find the plant, the petioles will be anywhere from 15 – 30 cm long. Stem leaves are sheathed at the base.

Shade-growing plants will have longer, usually thinner, leaf stalks. You will also see them purple-coloured.

It becomes apparent when forsging for hogweed that the best leaf shoots are silvery looking with unfurled leaves.
Hogweed shoots like this one are the sweetest and most tender.

The petioles are mostly solid, ridged, and bristly-hairy. When cut in cross section, they look like a squashed horseshoe shape, with a large central groove. In this respect they are a little like wild celery (Apium graveolens).

Cross section of a petiole. Note the shape, hairs, and arrangement of vascular bundle fibres.

 

Roots: This perennial plant has a large, creamy white tap-root, just like many family relatives.

 

Stems: Hogweed is by far our most common, tall, white flowering umbellifer of the summer and autumn.

when you have been foraging for hogweed for a while you see how many planta will grow taller than 2 metres.
Hogweed flowers all summer and can easily grow taller than 2 metres.

When out foraging for hogweed you can find the plant often reaching more than 2 metres high. The stems are bristly hairy, hollow, ridged, and branched towards the top. Often purple-coloured. Flowers will appear from stem / leaf axils.

You can still go foraging for hogweed when it produces flowering stems. The smaller lateral flower stems give us a tender stem broccoli substitute..
Hogweed flower stems are bristly-hairy and easily reach more than 2 metres high.

 

Flowers: White or pink-coloured compound umbels. These are variable in appearance as well.

Hogweed on the Somerset levels, where masses grow on the riverbanks.

 

Many are are flat-topped, the others more curved, like an umbrella. The former family name Umbelliferae comes from the Latin word for umbrella. Occasionally you can find pom-pom looking hogweed flowers too.

hogweeds inflorescence can be quite variable. It can be flat topped, curved or produce a pom-pom display.
hogweeds inflorescence can be flat-topped, curved top or like a pom-pom.

The compound umbels are approximately 10 – 25 cm wide. The largest being the apical one (around 25 cm diameter). Hogweed typically has between 8 – 15  umbels per compound umbel. Generally, each individual umbel has around twenty spokes, or rays, holding the individual flowers.

The outer flowers on the umbels have larger and irregular-shaped outer petals, compared to the inner flowers.

Hogweed has irregular-shaped outer petals, larger than the inner ones.

Hogweed has very few, or no bracts. It will always have a few bracteoles under the individual umbels, but these can soon wither.

Before you go foraging, watch this common hogweed Vs giant hogweed video on my ipsophyto YouTube channel!
Giant hogweed in the bottom of the Char valley, near Bridport, Dorset.

Flowering season: Hogweed has a long flowering season, coming into bloom from June continuing into October. In discussing wild chervil, I shared my tale about the eight inch high hogweed flowering away in December, and why herbaceous perennials will be seen flowering more ‘out of season’ in the future.

 

Fruits: A dry, ridged, oval-shaped schizocarp. When crushed these ‘seeds’ produce a cardamom and citrus-like aroma, with hints of coriander.

 

Habitats: Hogweed grows in all manner of settings in rural and urban areas. These include wastegrounds, rough grasslands, hedgerows, roadsides, riverbanks and woodland clearances. As this map shows, you can find hogweed in almost all areas of Britain, growing at altitudes approaching 1000 metres.

Hogweed will be found in many settings such as waste ground and rough grasslands in a grassland habitat.
Hogweed will grow in many settings, here enjoying a woodland habitat.

 

Parts used: All parts of this plant can be used for food and medicine.

 

Harvesting: Leaf shoots and leaves can be collected as and when they appear in spring.

When you are foraging hogweed shoots, the best results are from harvesting the petioles before the leaf has fully unfurled. After this they get less palatable. Fully opened leaves have fibrous petioles, and so at this point, only the foliage is edible.

Stems and pre-flowering stalks need to be harvested when still supple and tender, before the flower buds open.

Emerging flower buds are best harvested with their stem before they fully open.

Flowers should be harvested when just open.

Fruits can be used young, plump and green, or later, when they are mature, brown and thin.

Roots are best harvested in the autumn, at the end of the first years growth. Read more tips and tricks on picking wild plants over here in my harvesting guide.

 

Edible uses: The numerous available plant parts, alongside its different agreeable aromatics, tastes, and textures, give this plant a lot of versatility in the kitchen.

The vegetative parts such as the leaf shoots, stems and pre-flowering stalks, I use in numerous ways.

The leaf shoots I tend to treat like asparagus. So I sometines steam and occasionally chargrill. I also love making gram-flour pakora with them.

The stems I will use chopped up in chutney’s, with other abundant summer stems such as burdock and one of the willowherbs, for example.

The pre-flowering stalks can be cooked for a few minutes like tender-stem broccoli.

The seeds have a number of uses. They can be dried and used as any other spice. I add them green to hawthorn jams for extra flavour. They go well as a replacement for their cousin, caraway (Carum carvi) in breads and biscuits. I have also read accounts of the green seeds being pickled, but yet to try it.

 

Medicinal uses: Plants from the genus Heracleum are well known and used ethnobotanical herbs, with many medicinally useful compounds and attributes.

This plant contains essential oils, and because of these, hogweed will be useful as a carminative, digestive remedy. Readers of my medicinal plant chemsitry page will know that this medicinal action is common to pretty much the whole family, apart from the ones that kill you that is!

The genus is antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic, amongst other actions, as is reported here in this excellent study.

The herb has a long history of use in East Europe, but not so in Western herbal medicine traditions. This makes me wonder why?

Known in Romania as Branca uruslui, the herb is used for hormonal and male reproductive disorders. I’ve noticed a discussion where it was called ‘ginseng-like’. (That was not an affiliate link, merely a page of interest. I currently don’t offer affiliate links).

I am absolutely fascinated by ethnobotanical traditions in other countries, and from different terroir. I love hogweed more now because of some things I’ve learned in writing this article. This plant never stops giving!

 

Safety warning!

All parts of the plant contain the phototoxic molecule furucoumarin. This compound is a known and potentially severe irritant to the skin, when it’s in contact under sunlight. For everyone bar a miniscule minority, its absolutely safe to eat.

The dangers of these molecules really require an article of its own.  The effects from contact with photo-toxic compounds is not a black or white scenario.

Aside from an individual’s own skin sensitivity, it is important to say that temperature and intensity of ultra violet light are the biggest determining factors in how much or how badly the sap will affect your skin.

From my own experimentation with foraging for hogweed, after I rubbed some sap on my skin on a warm bright spring day, it gave me 1st degree burns. A bit like a mild cooker burn.

Definitely not as bad as its close relative, the notorious giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which can produce the equivalent of 3rd degree burns if sap gets on your skin. Ouch! Identify giant hogweed in flower here with our video.

I think its because of its similarity to giant hogweed and all the unpleasant headlines that it generates, that common hogweed has also become scary to people.

People with existing allergies to celery always need to seek professional advice about any member of the carrot family. I’m not qualified enough to say any more on health matters, aside from giving a reminder that testing your tolerance with any new wild plant is essential.

Lots of plants in the carrot family produce furucoumarins, but in different concentrations. There is as much danger in handling cut flowering parsnips as there is in collecting hogweed. Maybe more, because as already said, it depends on the person and climactic factors.

That all said, I don’t advocate eating a hogweed only diet and naked sunbathing.

If at all still worried, and to be fair, to be justifiably worried you will probably already have very sensitive skin, or have an allergy against celery, then harvest the plant with gloves on and choose a dull day to pick.

Happy Foraging!

Next up is my belated look at some of May’s wild food foraging highlights!

 

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