Cow Parsley has to be the species of Umbellifer that most people are familiar with, possibly Hog weed would run it a close second. Umbellifers are plants which have their little flowers arranged into an umbel which is like an umbrella formation. In some it is almost flat and in others it curves down slightly, more like an umbrella. The idea of course is to make a good display and thus attract more pollinating insects, it also makes for a convenient landing pad for said pollinators and once they have alighted they can then crawl around and visit lots of flowers and thus distribute the pollen from one flower to another. The down side of course is that all the flowers in one umbel will be genetically identical so a good mixing of genetic material will not be achieved unless of course the flowers are self sterile.
Incidentally one of the insects which often visits Cow Parsley flowers is the Orange tip Butterfly and when at rest with its wings closed it is superbly camouflaged, having a green and white spotty appearance whch looks exactly like the flower heads. When the wings are open then of course it is white and in the case of the males there is the distinctive Orange tip colouration. Orange Tips do not use Cow Parsley as a food plant, simply for nectar. Their food plants are Hedge Garlic and Cuckooflower.
The name Cow Parsley probably has nothing to do with Cows. The word Cow was often used in days gone by to mean false so it is False Parsley and of course the leaves do look like Parsley and especially early in the year before the big flowering stem has developed. Then the plant could be mistaken for parsley by its looks, but not of course by the smell if you picked some and crushed it and smelt your hands .
Cow Parsley is more of a hedge row species than a true woodland plant, it definitely prefers shady areas but not full on dense woodland shade. In May the hedge rows are often completely dominated by this plant and a frothy, bubbly border of white lines the country lanes. Later in the year other similar species like Hog weed Hedge Parsley, Corn Parsley and others will make an appearance and without careful observation you might mistake them all for Cow Parsley.
In the photo above you can see that not all of the petals are of the same size , the ones on the outside of the group are generally larger and the petals on the inside are much smaller. This is an early stage in the evolution of flowers towards the group known as Compositae (daisy types) where the flowers are all crammed together and the outer flowers are sterile and have large petals to attract the pollinators and the inner flowers concentrate on the reproductive process. These are known as Ray florets and Disc florets..(nicely demonstrated by these Oxeye daisies)
I remember as a small boy we used to use the stems of Cow Parsley to make pea shooters. The technique was quite straightforward you simply cut a stem just above the first node and then again just below the second node. This produced a hollow tube. At the time I did not know the terms node and internode they were just the joints along the stem. If you could find a stem where the distance between one node and the next was quite long then so much the better. For peas we used the flower buds of May or Hawthorn. Before the flowers open which is in May! the flowers are in little bunches and are white and spherical, ideal as ammunition for the Pea shooter. You pulled off a bunch and separated the flowers from the stalks, placed them in your mouth followed by the tube of Cow Parsley stalk and blew hard. The spherical flowers would then blast out of the pea shooter and travel some distance. Small boys could have great fun with these.
One year I found some stems which were bigger and longer, and so cut one of these to use as a Pea shooter. I did not pay much attention to the purple spots on the stem and presumably did not notice the nasty smell and probably taste. I was happy to have a bigger and better Pea shooter than all the other boys. That night my lips swelled up my throat was swollen and I was violently sick followed by stomach cramps and then constant need for the smallest room in the house. Yes you have guessed I made my Pea shooter from Hemlock… Quite deadly and not to be recommended. I did survive as you can see by my recollection of this incident. Having looked on the internet there are quite a few references to others who have mistaken Hemlock for Cow Parsley, so I am not the only small boy to have messed up in that respect.
As I normally do, after I have written my thoughts on a particular plant then I look it up on the internet and see what extra stuff there is about Cow Parsley. There are references to it being used as a ‘Pea Shooter’ also to make a whistle but one which I had not heard of and which seems to be quite a common reference is that it has associations with causing death and should not be bought into the house as it will cause the death of a mother. There are many references to this on a web site called Plant-Lore, which is obviously about folk lore associated with wild flowers…worth a look. It seems that the connection is that Cow Parsley often grows on the site of graves in a church yard and so the connection with death????
Finally here is a composite photo of a byway close to the river Wye which I took in May 2017. There are 5 photos stacked together in order to try and get the Cow Parsleys all in focus… Not 100% successful, I think it was too windy I will try again in 2018.
Click to see other flowers from the Wye valley woodlands