Cow parsnip at Matthaei.
Cow parsnip leaf.
Cow parsnip plant and leaves.
Cow parsnip leaf edges.
By Katie Stannard
This week’s native plant is cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum. Dramatically tall to 8’ and topped with a bright beacon of florets, it’s definitely an attention-getter–whether of alarm or admiration.
Part of the carrot family (Apiaceae), common names include Indian celery, Indian rhubarb, American cow parsnip, and pushki.
Cow parsnip contains chemicals called furanocoumarins which can irritate skin, causing rashes and burn-like lesions–depending on one’s sensitivity–after affected skin has been exposed to ultraviolet light (like sunlight). It’s thought that these phytochemicals act as a defensive protection against some detrimental insects, mammals, and fungi.
When entering skin tissue nuclei, phytochemicals bridge with the DNA when exposed to sunlight, causing cell death and a type of inflammation known as phytophotodermatitis. Furanocoumarins are also found in citrus, with positive impacts found in grapefruit, and include anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, and anti-cancer effects.
Many ethnobotanical uses by Native American peoples are documented. Stalks could be peeled and eaten raw, or cooked, made into flutes, used as straws, and employed for ceremonial purposes. Leaves were crushed for a drink to aid sore throats or colds. Roots were utilized in compounds for a variety of topical remedies to help with bruises, swelling, pain, rheumatism, toothaches–which sound like the anti-inflammatory properties related to bergapten and psoralen, now known as linear furanocoumarins endemic to the Apiaceae family.
Cow parsnip flowers close up.
Cow parsnip seed head.
Cow parsnip purple veining.
Cow parsnip fine hairs.