Common Hogweed - Heraleum sphondylium
Grows in grassland, hedgerows, roadsides, and woodland clearings
Leaves have pairs of opposing heavily-lobed leaflets, running up the leaf stem
Leaves are covered in small white hairs
Has large white umbels of flowers in summertime
There are eight variants of leaf shape in the UK that can confuse identification
Common Hogweed - Heracleum sphondylium
Edible plant with caution - intermediate
Other common names: Hogweed, Cow Parsnip, Eltrot
Scientific name meaning: Heracleum is derived from the Greek "Herakleion", and is a reference to the mythological hero Herucles. Sphodylium means "vertebrae" and in reference to the jointed main stem of Common Hogweed
Season March - October
Habitat - where will I find it? Grassland, hedgerows, roadsides and woodland clearings. It is found throughout Europe, and in some parts of Asia and Africa
Description - what does it look like? Common Hogweed can grow to 1.8m tall. Its leaves have pairs of opposing heavily-lobed leaflets, and are covered in tiny white hairs.
The flower heads start off encased in a specialised leaf that forms a pouch around it. When it first emerges, it resembles a broccoli or cauliflower floret.
The flower heads develop into umbels covered in white flowers before they are fertilised and carry greed seeds that brown with age.
Possible lookalikes Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which has serious phototoxic potential, could be mistaken for Common Hogweed.
Giant Hogweed is much larger, however, reaching 5-6m. In addition, the top surface of Giant Hogweed's leaf is hairless, while Common Hommon Hogweed has white hairs covering its upper leaf surface
Use as a food Common Hogweed can cause some potential issues (see hazards) and should never be eaten uncooked.
The young leaf shoots have a pleasant, unusual and almost herby flavour. They can be steamed, fried, baked, bolied, sauteed or roasted. Older leaves should not be consumed.
The young flower heads can be treated in the same way as the young leaf shoots. A popular way to eat them is to prepare them is as a tempura vegetable.
The young green seeds have a strong coriander-like flavour, and can be roasted and used as a spice. They give a particularly nice flour to biscuits and are delicious pickled
Use in herbal medicine Common Hogweed has been used as an aphrodisiac, digestive aid, sedative and to treat chest complaints.
If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner
Hazards There are a group of chemicals known as Furanocoumarins (or Furocoumarins) that occur within Common Hogweed. These Furanocoumarins have phototoxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic properties.
If the skin is splashed with sap during harvesting or strimming, for example, and exposed to UV light, a severe reaction can occur. The reaction manifests in the form of burns - from a sun-burn like effect to blisters. In Giant Hogweed, a phototoxic lookalike, this reaction is much more severe.
Cooking is believed to deactivate the Furanocumarins. However, some studies on plants within the same family have shown that domestic cooking environments are not sufficient for this.
Some Furanocumarins are now known to have an effect on medication absorption and effect.
Common Hogweed is a relative of celery, the allergen causing the greats number of food allergies in the UK. It, too, causes allergies in some people and it is advised to avoid if a celery allergy is know, and to do a tolerance test if not.
There are now nine known subspecies of Heracleum sphondylium (Common Hogweed) and two occur in the UK. Variation in leaf shape and form can make it difficult for a novice forager. In addition to this, members of the Genus Heracleum readily hybridise, including crosses between Giant and Common Hogweed. This further increases identification difficulties
Importance to other species Very important food source for pollinators and birds
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!