Anthriscus Sylvestris: Cow Parsley or Fairy Lace
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
It’s often rather taken for granted: a staple of countryside verges – at times as tall as the hedgerows – with tiny flowers like white paint splattered amongst the greenery, seen most often in passing; a blur of pale purity against the vibrant greens. I cannot remember a late-Spring here in Suffolk that wasn’t an explosion of cow parsley, its fragile white flowers suspended on spindle-thin green stems. On family walks when I was a child, I would brush my hand along their fine flurry of flowers, or cruelly snap-off a domed flowerhead as I walked past.
These harmless (and yet, judging by the sheer quantity of them linings our roads, incredibly invasive) wild flowers are a hallmark of the British Spring and Summer, and grow abundantly nearly everywhere, even in the busiest suburban areas and along main roads (so long as they can avoid the local council’s draconian maintenance policies).
This year, we have decided to bring these simple flowers indoors, picking a few bright sprigs for a vase, to add a seasonal, clean feel to the living room coffee table.
Cow parsley is easily recognisable - delicate umbrellas of blooms swaying at the ends of lanky insubstantial stalks - though it's worth highlighting that there are some superficial similarities with the deadly poisonous hemlock, so beware and make sure you can safely identify anything you collect, whether for eating or display.
Cow parsley gets its name from its similarity to parsley - the “cow” reference simply means an “inferior” variant of something: a value-judgement from someone clearly unimpressed by spectacular floral displays. I think as children I assumed that it's name originated from its popularity as a snack among cattle; perhaps it is, but unfortunately that's not where it gets its common name from! Its Latin name is Anthriscus sylvestris (wild chervil), but another common name is fairy lace, which I particularly like.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me as young children that Cow Parsley might be edible. Like most children, I was well-versed in the mantra of not picking and eating random plants: berries could be poisonous, nuts could be toxic, and leaves could have been recently peed-on by a dog. As a result, we had always assumed that Cow Parsley was for decoration only.
It’s been through reading Richard Mabey’s Food For Free (first mentioned in our New Year resolutions post, and again in our Reading List) that we have discovered that this plant, a relative of cultivated chervil, is in fact edible. I will admit that we haven't yet tried it, so could not recommend it as a herb or vegetable.
According to Richard Mabey, Cow Parsley should be picked “as soon as the stems are sufficiently developed for you to identify it”, and should be avoided later in the year as it “becomes rather bitter”. Mabey suggests that it “goes well with hot baked potatoes, and as an addition to the French country dish cassoulet”. Perhaps, in the coming weeks, as these umbrellas of cloud-white flowers fully blossom, we’ll make an attempt to add a few leaves to a salad. We are not yet wholly convince, but perhaps it is worth the risk to try something that grows so abundantly and freely on our doorstep!