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The Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum also known as Indian Celery or Pushki) is the only member of the Hogweedmarker genus native to North America. Its classification has caused some difficulty, with recent authoritative sources referring to it variously as Heracleum maximum or Heracleum lanatum , as H. linatum, or as either a subspecies, H. sphondylium subsp. montanum, or a variety, H. sphondylium var. linatum, of the Common Hogweed (H. sphondylium). The classification given here follows ITIS.


The Cow Parsnip is distributed throughout the continental United Statesmarker and Alaska except the Gulf Coast and a few neighboring states. It is listed as "Endangered" in Kentucky and "Special Concern" in Tennessee. In Canadamarker, it is found in each province except Nunavutmarker. It has not been reported in Greenlandmarker. It may be weedy or invasive in portions of its range.


The Cow Parsnip is a tall herb, reaching to heights of over two metres. It has the characteristic flower umbels of the carrot family (Apiaceae), about 20 cm across; these may be flat-topped, as in the picture at right, or more rounded, and are always white. The leaves are large, up to 40 cm across, divided into lobes. The stems are stout and succulent.


The juices of all parts contain a phototoxin that can act on contact with skin and exposure to ultraviolet light, causing anything from a mild rash to a blistering, severe dermatitis, depending on the sensitivity of the individual. The plant is a pernicious weed especially in pastures, where it can ruin the milk of cows that eat it.

Various Native American peoples had many different uses for this plant; all parts of it were used by one nation or another. Perhaps the most common use was to make poultices to be applied to bruises or sores. In addition, the young stalks and leaf stems — before the plant reaches maturity — were widely used for food with the outer skin peeled off giving a sweetish flavor. The dried stems were also used as drinking straws for the old or infirm, and to make flutes for children. A yellow dye can be made from the roots, and an infusion of the flowers can be rubbed on the body to repel flies and mosquitoes.

Similar species

These plants all have white flowers in large compound umbels. Therefore, these plants are confused with each other; the water parsnip, (swamp parsnip, sium suave) and the western water hemlock, (Cicuta douglasii, poison hemlock) or the spotted water hemlock (cicuta maculata, spotted water hemlock, spotted parsley, spotted cowbane). Water parsnip and water hemlock both have cluster of small white flowers shaped like umbrellas, and both have the same habitat near the shore line of lakes, and rivers. Water parsnip has leaves only once compound, and water hemlock has leaves which are three times compound. Water hemlock has a large swelling at the stem base. All water hemlock is highly poisonous. Water parsnip is not poisonous. The water hemlock has bracts at the base of each small flower cluster, not at the base of the main flower head. The Water parsnip has small bracts at the base of flowers and main flower head as well. The Yarrow, (Common Yarrow, Gordaldo, Nosebleed plant, Old Man's Pepper, Sanguinary, Milfoil, Soldier's Woundwort, Thousand-leaf (as its binomial name affirms), Thousand-seal or Achillea millefolium) also has many small white flowers in a cluster. However, the yarrow has feathery looking leaves which are pinnately separated into small narrow segments. The cow parsnip (heracleum lanatum, Heracleum maxinium Indian Celery or Pushki, and Heracleum sphondylium, hogweed) is also confused in this group with similar flower groupings. However, the cow parsnip has large, broad leaves, and an unpleasant odour.

Hemlock's distinguishing characteristics are that it requires a more consistent supply of water than Lomatium or Osha, and Lomatium species tend to prefer dry rocky soils devoid of organic material. Lomatium roots have a delicate rice-like odor, unlike the musty odor of Hemlock, with finely divided, hairlike leaves in most Lomatium species. Lomatium species tend to produce yellow flowers, but some species are white flowered and closely resemble Poison Hemlock. If the plant is growing on a hillside in dry, mineral soil far away from a source of water and has umbells of yellow flowers, its likely a Lomatium. It the plant is growing in an area near water in consistently moist soil, is tall (0.75-2m), has purple splotches on the main stem, and is heavily branched with small umbels of white flowers, it is probably Hemlock and should be avoided.

Osha does not do well in overly moist soils since it is a species dependent on mycorrhizal fungi to survive, but there are areas where Osha and Poison Hemlock can be found only a few feet from each other. Poison Hemlock lacks the "spicy celery" odor of Osha, and is easily distinguished from it due to the absence of hairlike dead leaf material present on the root crown of Osha roots. Poison Hemlock roots in many cases have no discernible odor, and are typically heavily branched rather than carrot-like, but this is not always the case. The plants themselves smell musty or "mousy", and in most instances will have purple blotches or shading on the lower stem of the plant if the plant is fairly mature, but again, this is not always the case.

In the Mountain West of North America, poison hemlock has become well established and invasive, and can be found in remote mountain areas anywhere water is present or soils are persistently moist. It is often found growing in the same habitat and side by side with Osha and Lomatium species, useful medicinal relatives in the Parsley family which Hemlock closely resembles, and can be very difficult to distinguish from Lomatium (an important historical food plant of Native Americans known as Biscuit Root).

A useful trick to determine whether a plant is poison hemlock rather than fennel, which it resembles, is to crush some leaves and smell the result. Fennel smells like anise or liquorice, whereas the smell of poison hemlock is often described as mouse-like or musty. Considering the high toxicity of poison hemlock, if the plant cannot be identified it must be discarded. Coniine can be absorbed through the skin, and it is well advised to wash your hands immediately after handling this plant and avoid touching your eyes or mouth if you have recently handled or come into contact with Poison Hemlock, or if you have crushed the leaves of this plant in your hand to perform a "smell test".

Poison hemlock is sometimes confused with water hemlocks in the related genus Cicuta, but are readily distinguished by the less finely divided leaves of the latter; the leaf veins of poison hemlock also run through the tips of the teeth, but those of the water hemlock run through the notches in between the teeth. The poison hemlock's root is long, white, and fleshy and is usually stringy and heavily branched, but can be carrot-like and unbranched in younger specimens of Conium. Water hemlock's roots are made up of several tubers, and are typically chambered, and exude a yellow, rank, highly toxic sap that contains cicutoxin.

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