Herb: Cow Parsnip

Latin name: Heracleum sphondylium montanum

Synonyms: Heracleum lanatum, Heracleum maximum

Family: Umbelliferae

Medicinal use of Cow Parsnip:

Cow parsnip was widely employed medicinally by a large number of native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a wide variety of complaints, but especially as a poultice on bruises, sores etc. It is little used in modern herbalism, though perhaps it merits further investigation. All parts of the plant are antirheumatic, antispasmodic, carminative, febrifuge, odontalgic and stimulant. The leaves are tonic. They have been used in the treatment of colds. A soothing drink made from the leaves is used to treat sore throats. A poultice of the heated leaves has been applied to minor cuts, sore muscles etc. An infusion of the fresh young stems has been used in the treatment of diarrhoea. It has also been used as a wash to remove warts. The plant has been used in the treatment of epilepsy. A tea made from the roots is used in the treatment of indigestion, colds, stomach cramps, rheumatism, sore throats, TB etc. Externally, the root is used as a poultice on sores, bruises, swellings, boils, rheumatic joints, VD scabs etc, whilst a bit of root has been held on an aching tooth to reduce the pain. The root can be crushed, mixed with water and used as an antidandruff hair wash. The root contains psoralen, which is being investigated for its use in the treatment of psoriasis, leukaemia and AIDS. The seed has been used to treat severe headaches.

Description of the plant:


2.4 m
(7 3/4 foot)


Habitat of the herb:

Rich damp soils of prairies and mountains, especially along streams and in open woods in Western N. America.

Edible parts of Cow Parsnip:

Root - cooked. Tastes like a swede. Used like potatoes, though it is considered to be poisonous by some writers. The peeled stem can be eaten raw but is best cooked. The unpeeled stem can be used when young, or just the inner tissue of older stems can be used, before the plants flower. For people not used to the flavour, they are best cooked in two changes of water when they make a tasty celery-like vegetable. Another report says that, despite the strong odour of the leaves and outer skin, the peeled young stems are mild and sweet, resembling celery in flavour. The stems cannot be eaten raw in large quantities because they give a burning sensation in the mouth. The stems are highly nutritious, containing up to 18% protein. Leaves and young shoots - raw or cooked. Cooked as greens or added to salads. Young flowers. No further details. The dried seeds are used as a flavouring for soups, stews and potato salads. The dried base of the plant and ashes from the burnt leaves are used as a salt substitute.

Other uses of the herb:

Whistles, flutes, straws etc can be made from the hollow stems. The leaves are used as a covering for baskets of fruit etc. A yellow dye is obtained from the roots. An infusion of the blossoms, rubbed on the body, repels flies and mosquitoes.

Propagation of Cow Parsnip:

Seed - sow mid to late spring or early autumn in situ. Division in autumn.

Cultivation of the herb:

Rich damp soils of prairies and mountains, especially along streams and in open woods in Western N. America.

Known hazards of Heracleum sphondylium montanum:

Many members of this genus, including this species, contain furanocoumarins. These have carcinogenic, mutagenic and phototoxic properties. The fresh foliage can cause dermatitis. If the juice and hairs of the outer skin are left on the face and mouth, they can cause blisters. This effect is especially prevalent for people with fair complexions.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.