The unkindly named hogweed is a member of the carrot family, a very large group of mostly white or yellow flowering plants which includes many important culinary species like chervil, cicely, caraway and angelica and others with medicinal properties. Many of them grow to a great size, none more so than hogweed which often reaches shoulder height. The giant hogweed, not native to Britain although widespread here, may tower to ten feet or more.
|Typical flat topped umbel of common hogweed|
And identification is important, for mixed in among these aromatic herbs and also bearing white umbels are some of the most poisonous plants to be found anywhere, the hemlocks and water dropworts, which are potentially lethal to humans and livestock alike even in comparatively small doses. Some of them are all the more dangerous for being common and all parts of the plants are toxic; leaves, seeds and especially roots. Hemlock poisoning, which causes respiratory paralysis while still conscious, was apparently a favoured means of execution in classical Greece. Its most celebrated victim was Socrates, put to death for his outspoken criticism of Athenian democracy, whose demise is told of by Plato in the Phaedo.
|Outermost flowers of each cluster are larger|
It is fairly straightforward to identify from the flowers alone. They are often pink when still buds, the ones in the centre of each umbel being the last to open. There are five petals and flowers at the outer edges of the cluster have a pair of larger petals, projecting outwards, shaped rather like miniature fish tails. The flowers are much frequented by insects including bees. They give off a mildly unpleasant scent which I have only really noticed on hot, muggy days when the flowers are very abundant. Hogweed's attraction of insects potentially makes it a valuable companion plant for crops because it may aid pollination or pest control. Certainly it is often found around field edges but I think it unlikely that its seeds have been sown purposely as it is naturally invasive.
I don't suppose hogweed will feature high on the list of favourite wild flowers for many people and I must count myself among them. But I associate it with countless country walks on summer days when the sky is blue and the air is hot and fizzing with insects. And in our current, decidedly unspectacular Scottish summer, that surely can't be bad.