Apiaceae Heracleum lanatum
A division of  Discover Life in America
Compiled by John Pickren
General Ecology Student at
The University of Georgia
 Photograph courtesy of Univ. of Georgia Herbarium.
Copyright Dept. of Botany, Univ. of Georgia, Athens.
All Rights Reserved.
  • Common Names:
  • Abbreviation:
  • SCS Plant Code:
  • Higher Taxa:
  • Identification:
  • Geography:
  • Other Uses:
  • Precautions:
  • How to Encounter:
  • More Pictures:(13)
  • Sources & Links:
  • Numbers in the text represent linked sources or books of reference.  All numbers are associated with a specific source which is listed on the Sources & Links: page.

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    Common Names:  (2)(3)
    Common Cow Parsnip, Cowparsnip, Hogweed, Keck, Chiming Bells
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    Abbreviation:  (8)
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    SCS Plant Code:  (8)
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     Higher Taxa:  (6)(9)(14)
    Genus:  Heracleum
    Species:  lanatum
     Publication Author:  Michx.

     Synonyms:   HESPL  Heracleum sphondylium var. lanatum (Michx.) Dorn
                        HESPM  Heracleum sphondylium ssp. montanum (Schleich. ex Gaudin) Briq.
                        HELA4  Heracleum lanatum Michx.
                        (Heracleum maximum, Heracleum lanatum Michaux.)
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    Identification:  (4)(7)(8)(17)
        General Description:  Forms a low growing rosette with a large fleshy taproot in its first year

        Stems:  Somewhat hairy and grooved
        Flowers: White to Cream colored.  Tiny with five petals in umbels which are 6-12 inches. It forms clusters
                      from ball shaped to flat.  It has a interesting, sweet smell. . Opens from huge green pod atop stems.
                      Flower stalks grow from 2 to 8 feet.
        Blooms: March - May.

        Leaves: Made up of three huge maple like leaflets, 1 - 2 ft across. They are also hairy with serrated edges.

        Seed:  The seed is flattened on one side and rounded on the other, with distinct ridges.
    Cow parsnip is a native, perennial forb that grows from 3.3 to 10 feet (1-3 m) tall and has broad, flat-topped umbels.  It
    grows from a stout taproot or a cluster of fibrous roots.  Leaves are 8 to 20 inches (20-50 cm) long and wide.  The
    egg shaped fruit is 0.32 to 0.48 inch (8-12 mm) long and 0.24 to 0.36 inch (6-9 mm) wide.
    Cow parsnip reproduces by seed. Some flowers within an umbel only produce stamens, while others are hermaphroditic.  Secondary umbels develop synchronously approximately 10 to 14 days after the primary umbel.  Hermaphroditic flower and seed production may be increased by herbivory.
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    Geography:  (6)(8)(17)
         The common cow parsnip is located mainly in the Old World, but a few species do exist in grassy places and roadsides in Europe, Asia and North America.  The areas most with the most common sightings of cow parsnip are represented in RED below.

    © Image generated using gd 1.2 software from Quest Protein Database Center. Copyright 1994, 1995.
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    Apiaceae Heracleum lanatum
    Northern Pacific Border Yes FEIS
    Cascade Mountains Yes FEIS
    Southern Pacific Border Yes FEIS
    Sierra Mountains Yes FEIS
    Columbia Plateau Yes FEIS
    Upper Basin and Range Yes FEIS
    Northern Rocky Mountains Yes FEIS
    Middle Rocky Mountains Yes FEIS
    Wyoming Basin Yes FEIS
    Southern Rocky Mountains Yes FEIS
     Colorado Plateau
    Rocky Mountain Piedmont
    Great Plains
    Black Hills Uplift
    Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
    Georgia Yes Personal Observation
    Clarke County, Georgia Yes Personal Observation
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     Other Uses:  (10)(5)
        Native Americans of Alaska, British Columbia, the Great Plains, and Arizona used cow parsnip for medicinal and nutritional purposes.  Native Americans in Alaska ate the inside of stems raw and boiled the roots to extract sugar.  In Arizona, the Apache ate the young leaves and stems and used the roots to treat epilepsy.
        Virtually all first peoples used Cow Parsnip as a green vegetable. They peeled and ate raw, or boiled, the stalks and leaf stems before the flowers matured. The flower stalks and leaf stems were harvested, peeled, and eaten fresh. One has to be careful not to confuse this plant with similar species such as water hemlock, which are poisonous.
        Cow parsnip has been known to have many medicinal effects when used properly.  The roots were washed, sliced, pounded, usually heated, and put in a cheesecloth to use as a poultice for sore backs, sore eyes, and other painful areas including boils. They were also boiled with red willow and chokecherry branches to make a strong cleansing medicine for the scalp.
        Other parts used include the fruits, leaves, roots, and seeds.  It can decreases the thickness and increase fluidity of mucus from lungs and bronchial tubes.  It also depresses the central nervous system and spasm of smooth muscle of skeletal muscle.  The fruits and leaves are used as a sedative for the most part.
        Cow parsnip is often planted as an ornamental shrub.

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    Precautions:  (10)(5)
        The outer skin, actually considered to be poisonous by some groups, contains a chemical that sensitizes the skin to light, which can cause blistering of the lips.  Cow parsnip and its relatives must be handled extremely carefully, because they contain photo toxic compounds (furanocoumarins), which make the skin sensitive to ultraviolet light, and therefore, to sunlight. That is why the stalks must be peeled before being eaten, and, especially for light skinned people, even brushing up against the hairs of the leaves, and then exposing the skin to sunlight can cause severe blistering and discoloration of the skin that may remain for weeks or even months.

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    How to Encounter:  (4)(3)(8)(7)
        Cow parsnip occurs in a variety of habitats including woodlands, forest openings, grasslands, and riparian areas such as wet meadows, stream terraces, alluvial benches, flood plains, and stream and lake margins.  Cow parsnip is a facultative wetland species; it grows best in moist, shaded areas but can also be found in open woodlands and clearings.  It is shade tolerant, but also grows in some open habitats such as roadsides and meadows, often in large patches.
        It grows best on loam and sandy loam soils derived from limestone and shale, but occurs on clay, clay loam, and gravely substrates as well.  Cow parsnip occurs in climax communities.  Cow parsnip is a common under story species in quaking aspen community types, which are often successional in sub alpine forests of the Inter mountain region.
        In and around the southern United States, cow parsnip can be found in a variety of places which are mentioned above.  They are easily spotted along trails, in vacant fields ,and along the roadsides of most highways.  As mentioned before, they do grow easily in a number of climates and environments as can be seen by the map above.  The species is extremely tolerant and able to grow bountifully most anywhere.

    Compiled by John Pickren
    Ecology 3500-May 1999
    University of Georgia