Common cowparsnip (Heracleum maximum)

Alaska Wildflowers | White

Common cowparsnip

Heracleum maximum

Common Names

American cow parsnip (VASCAN)
berce laineuse
berce très grande
cowparsnip
cow-parsnip
cow parsnip
common cowparsnip
grande berce
Indian celery
Indian rhubarb
poglus
poison turnip
pushki
Satan celery

Synonyms

Heracleum lanatum
Heracleum sphondylium var. lanatum
Heracleum sphondylium ssp. montanum*(ITIS accepted name) While I typically use the accepted name according to ITIS, nearly unanimous consensus among other sources list H. sphondylium ssp. montanum (1971) as a synonym of H. maximum.

Subspecies

none

Genus: Heracleum
Family: Apiaceae
Order: Apiales
full classification

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – forb/herb



Identification and Information

Heracleum maximum, commonly known as common cowparsnip, is a 1-3 m tall (3-10 feet) perennial herb with hollow stems, large leaves, and large flat umbels of hundreds of small flowers. The stems bear leaves with widely sheathing petioles 10-40 cm long, with the upper sheaths enlarged and bladeless (the stems and leaves are usually hairy). The leaves are usually ternately and sometimes pinnately divided. Leaflets are often toothed.

The large inflorescence is an umbel, 10-30 cm in diameter, supported by a 5-20 cm long peduncle. The rounded inflorescence is composed of 15-30 rays. The involucre, a protective outer layer surrounding the base of the flower cluster, consists of 5 to 10 deciduous, narrow bracts that are 5 to 20 mm in length. Additionally, the flower cluster includes involucel bractlets that resemble the involucre bracts in appearance and function, further protecting the developing flowers. The flowers themselves feature white, obovate (egg-shaped with the narrower end at the base) petals. The fruits are obovate or heart-shaped and 8-12 mm long.


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Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

Heracleum maximum does contain toxins (especially on the outer layers) and should not be used as food or medicine without the guidance of a professional. Information is provided for historical and educational purposes only to highlight the diverse ways in which different cultures have utilized this plant. Before considering any traditional use, it’s crucial to consult with a qualified healthcare provider or a knowledgeable herbalist to ensure safety and appropriateness for your specific situation. The plant can also cause burn-like blisters on the skin due to furanocoumarins on the leaves and stems that can cause rashes from contact, especially if exposure is combined with exposure to sunlight (phytophotodermatitis).

The Native American Ethnobotany Database reveals that Heracleum maximum has been traditionally used by various Native American tribes for hundreds of purposes. These uses include medicinal applications, such as the Cherokee’s use of the root as a diuretic and for kidney issues, and the Iroquois’ use of the plant for colds, fevers and as a general strength tonic. The plant has also been used for food, with the Bella Coola consuming the stems and the Micmac using the seeds as a seasoning. Blackfoot used the stems to make children’s toy blowguns. Additionally, cowparsnip has found utility in materials and technology, such as the Okanagan-Colville using the stalks for making fishing lines.

It also serves as a valuable food for numerous wild animals and livestock.


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Distribution and Habitat

Heracluem maximum is widely distributed across North America, including Alaska, Canada (except for Nunavut), and all but the deep southern states of the US. It is also prevalent in eastern Siberia, China, and Japan.

It lives in moist soils in lowland to alpine environments.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
   SubkingdomViridiplantae (green plants)
      InfrakingdomStreptophyta (land plants)
         SuperdivisionEmbryophyta 
            DivisionTracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
               SubdivisionSpermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
                  ClassMagnoliopsida 
                     SuperorderAsteranae 
                        OrderApiales 
                           FamilyApiaceae 
                              GenusHeracleum L. (cow parsnip, cowparsnip)
                                 SpeciesHeracleum maximum

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References and Further Reading

Guidebook

Pratt, V. E. 1989. Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers. Publisher. (p. 46).

Brandenburg, D. M. 2010. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America. Sterling Publishing. (p. 62)

Classification and Taxonomy

Database of Vascular Plants of Canada (VASCAN). (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://data.canadensys.net/vascan/taxon/2583?lang=en

USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center. (n.d.). Plants Database – Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=HEMA80

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS). (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=502953#null

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS). (n.d.). Heracleum sphondylium subsp. montanum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=525943#null

Uses

Native American Ethnobotany Database. (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from http://naeb.brit.org/uses/species/1851/

Map and Distribution

GBIF. (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://www.gbif.org/species/3034826

NatureServe Explorer. (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.139324/Heracleum_maximum

Description and Information

E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Flora of British Columbia. (n.d.). Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Heracleum%20maximum&redblue=Both&lifeform=7

U.S. Forest Service. (n.d.). Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) – Heracleum maximum. Retrieved February 18, 2024, from https://www.fs.usda.gov/database/feis/plants/forb/hermax/all.html

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