Hemlock and Cow Parsley 31   Recently updated !


Note : Please don’t send me photos or ask me to identify trees, plants, berries or mushrooms.

Back in February I posted a recipe for cow parsley soup.  Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is also known as ‘wild chervil’, and whilst I quite like  the slightly aniseed taste it gives, I know isn’t for everyone.

But the important thing to be aware of with cow parsley is that it can be mistaken for hemlock (Conium maculatum), in fact the most common foraging question we get asked is “What’s the difference between hemlock and cow parsely?”. Some of you might remember from history that the Greek philosopher Socrates was executed by consuming a hemlock derived drink – it’s highly poisonous so you need to get this right.

I added a couple of photos and a few pointers on the differences between the two in the cow parsley post, but I didn’t add a lot of detail as I’ve never seen any hemlock near our woodland camp to get close up photos.  This is because typically (but not always) hemlock grows on damp ground and riversides (although can also be found alongside roads).

However, at the weekend we ran a Wild Foods course at Nethergong Campsite and there was loads of hemlock growing amongst the cow parsley alongside a ditch and we were able to take some photos.

Before looking at the major differences in detail, I first want to look at the two plants as a whole.  Mature cow parsley and hemlock just look different.  I accept that this might not seem a helpful statement, but it is the case!

Both of the next two photos were taken on the same day at the end of May.

Cow parlsey is slender, almost graceful and a much paler shade of green.

hemlock and cow parsley | foraging | wild foods | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Whereas hemlock is sturdier, more robust and is a darker shade of green.

hemlock and cow parsley | foraging | wild foods | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Leaves

In this first photo the cow parsley is on the left and hemlock on the right.  The main differences are:

  • They are subtly different shades of green – the hemlock is a little darker.
  • Cow parsley has a matt finish whilst the hemlock has a slightly glossy sheen.
  • Hemlock has finer leaves, more feathery in appearance.
  • Cow parsley leaves have a fringe of hairs on both sides of the leaf margin whilst hemlock leaves are glabrous (the botanical term for hairless).  You might need to use a lens to check this.

hemlock and cow parsley | foraging | wild foods | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Flowers

  • Cow parsley flowers are in an umbel, generally 5 – 6cm across and come out between April and June.
  • Hemlock flowers are also in an umbel, are around 2 – 5cm across and come out in June and July.

Stems

In this next photo cow parsley is again on the left and hemlock on the right.

hemlock and cow parsley | foraging | wild foods | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Cow parsley Hemlock
Typically up to 1m tall Typically up to 2m tall
Hollow, round stem with furrows Hollow, round stem
Often has a pink/pale purple hue Distinctive purple blotches on a green stem
Slightly hairy stem Glabrous stem

Side stems

The botanical term for a side stem is petiole, it’s the stalk that grows out of the stem and supports a leaf.

The side stems of cow parsley are triangular and have a groove, a bit like celery, hemlock doesn’t have this.

In this last photo you can see a cross section of the side stems, again cow parsley is on the left and hemlock on the right.

hemlock and cow parsley | foraging | wild foods | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Smell

So this is difficult to get across on a blog post, but smell can help here as well.  Cow parsley, I think, has a pleasant smell (a bit of a cross between parsley and aniseed), whilst hemlock really doesn’t!

Unless you are absolutely certain you know what it is, don’t eat any foraged plants.

We teach how to tell hemlock and cow parsley apart from each other on our foraging courses.

You can see loads of photos from these courses, as well as all of our others, on our Facebook page.


About Gary

Lead Instructor at Jack Raven Bushcraft, teaching bushcraft, wilderness and survival skills to groups and individuals.

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