At this time of year, the countryside is constantly changing as different flora burst into flower.
The water meadows, for example, have been transformed into a dreamy sea of yellow almost as far as the eye can see, as the buttercups take their place in the sun for a short while. It is a scene that no photo or line of writing can do justice – you just have to walk among it and take it all in.
The hawthorn blossom is spectacular at this time as well, bringing hedgerows and footpaths alive with an abundance of pungent white flowers that are starting to go pink as they move towards their fruit stage.
For the past month or so, my attention has also been drawn to the masses of cow parsley flowers foaming on tall stalks along roadsides and shady woodland paths. As I write, this spectacle is starting to dissipate but throughout last month the cow parsley was in its magnificent pomp.
Nature writer Richard Mabey wrote of the phenomenon: “Cow parsley is arguably the most important landscape flower in Britain. For nearly all of May, almost every country road is edged with its froth of white blooms.”
Typically, this fleeting time of cow parsley comes and goes without me really noticing. So widespread is its range, and so unremarkable its predictable spring arrival that I take cow parsley for granted, overlooking it in my search for less common wonders.
But an observation in mid-May changed all that. Walking along the river by the Old Swimming Place I was following the flight of an orange tip butterfly when it landed on a cow parsley flower and immediately disappeared. On closer inspection, I realised that the insect had closed its wings, hiding its distinctive orange markings, and was making use of the green and white mottling on its underwing to blend in perfectly with the cow parsley flowers ( see image below).
I was blown away – the camouflage was complex and incredibly effective. I’d noticed the mottled pattern many times before but had no idea this species had evolved to resemble cow parsley so closely. Both butterfly and flower emerge in mid-April, so it makes sense they might develop a relationship – but the sophistication of the camouflage was such that I couldn’t help thinking that our current understanding of evolution and natural selection is inadequate in explaining such wonderful developments in our natural world.
That one moment made me see cow parsley, or wild chervil, as it sometimes known, anew. It’s everywhere during May and it lights the way.
I remember as a child, cow parsley wasn’t a plant that was looked on favourably; I had the impression that there was something dark about this whitest of white flowers, and that I should stay away.
I know now that this is because the flowers and leaves of cow parsley look very similar to hemlock – a deadly poisonous plant that, famously, philosopher Socrates was forced to ingest as punishment for corrupting the youth of ancient Greece.
In some parts of Britain cow parsley was colloquially known as ‘mother-die’ – relating to a folklore that warned young children that their mother would keel over if the plant was taken indoors. Presumably, this story was thought up to stop children playing with cow parsley in case they handled hemlock instead.
Apparently, the way to tell cow parsley and hemlock apart is through the stem – hemlock has a purple-spotted stem while cow parsley has a green one.
I’ve discovered online foragers who say they use the young leaves of cow parsley in salads, but they advise it is not worth taking the risk unless you are 100% sure.
Talking of salads, cow parsley is part of the umbellifer family, which also includes carrots, celery and parsnips. A defining feature of this family is what is known as an umbel structure to its flower head, which sees a number of short flower stalks spread from a common point - like umbrella ribs. The word umbel comes from the Latin umbella which means ‘parasol shade’.
Another colloquial name for cow parsley that I rather like is Queen Anne’s lace. One explanation for this is that the Stuart Queen Anne suffered from asthma, and so would often take walks in the countryside for fresh air. As she passed the flowers of cow parsley, they reminded her of the lace pillows that her ladies-in-waiting carried, and so created this name for them.