Cowslips

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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Cow Parsley - Anthriscus sylvestris

cow_parsley_238Towards the end of February I found a single plant of cow parsley already in flower by the car park entrance. Such exceptionally early flowering plants are not unusual after mild winters - and last February was exceptionally mild. It is however in late spring/early summer that this plant really comes into its own, bringing great pleasure to the traveller as it brightens the roadsides with its masses of the delicate white flowers (or adds to the hazards of motoring as its rank growth obscures vision at country road junctions!)

The individual flowers are small, no more than 3-4 mm in diameter, but in any one inflorescence the stalks which bear them all radiate from a single point and are so arranged to produce flat heads about 2 cm across. These heads are themselves borne on similarly radiating stalks and this results in complex flower heads known technically as "compound umbels". It is this structure which gives the Family to which cow parsley belongs the botanical name of Umbelliferae - which, translated from its Latin origins, means "The sunshade bearers".

It is the delicate beauty of its flowers which give cow parsley the most euphemistic of its many alternative names : "Queen Anne's Lace". Other names, such as the ugly "keck", or the ominous "devil's oatmeal" have less to recommend them. As a boy in North Norfolk I knew the plant as "humlock" - a term which embraced a number of umbelliferous plants with finely cut leaves, including the true hemlock (Conium maculatum). Its superficial similarity to the latter very poisonous weed led to us being careful not to gather it along with the hogweed we collected as rabbit food, and reluctant to use the hollow stems of dead plants as pea-shooters (a role for which they are ideally suited!). In fact cow parsley may be distinguished from hemlock by its having hairy rather than smooth leaves and stems which, though sometimes purple-tinged, are never purple spotted (and rabbits aren't poisoned by it - they will eat it with relish!).

Although A. sylvestris thrives in open situations, its botanical name alludes to its also being found in woodland, and on Magog Down it may be found growing in abundance under the horse chestnut trees along Haverhill Road.

"Spring goeth all in white", wrote Robert Bridges. As Spring welcomes you to Magog Down you will see her on a bodice of chestnut flowers, a skirt of hawthorn blossom and petticoats of Queen Anne's Lace.

David Yarham
May 1998

See also...

News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler