Friday, 25 May 2012

What do you call that white thing? Kill-your-mother-quick?


On Tuesday night I asked a tour-train of directors from botanic gardens around the world what they called the white-flowering umbelliferous plant you see in these pictures. Queen Anne's Lace was the consensus. This came from the Australian and North American representatives.

Earlier in the week I'd used a pictorial key to the common flowers of Britain I found in my office, and decided this white thing was Cow Parsley.

Today I checked with a local, Greg Redwood (Kew's Head of Great Glasshouses and Training) who confirmed the Cow Parsley diagnosis, although he did say there might be a bit of wild carrot amongst it.

Turns out Cow Parsley and Queen Anne's Lace are both commonly used names for Anthriscus sylvestris and this is what I'm more or less convinced it is. Other names are Wild Chervil, Wild Beaked-parsley, Keck, Poor-man's Oatmeal, Rabbit Meat, Adder's Meat and even Mother-die and Kill-your-mother-quick.

Because of these latter names, or perhaps because of what is was perceived to do, the flowers of Anthriscus sylvestris are not brought inside the house by some. It tends to drop its petals so perhaps that is the real source of the weird name - a clever device for mother's to encourage their families to not bring it inside!


Even the rather quaint name Queen Anne's Lace may refer to the death of Queen Anne's children rather than the pretty lace effect of the flowers.

Cow Parsley likes shady places so you see it under many of the trees in Kew Gardens were we let the wildflowers do what they want in spring (i.e. we don't decapitate them with mowers). I've seen a reference to it as Dead-man's Flesh because it frequents cemeteries, presumably in the shade of tomb stones.

As you'd guess by the mention of the words oatmeal and meat in some of the common names, you can eat Cow Parsley. Like pretty much everything in its plant family (Apiaceae) it tastes a bit like carrot. Although I gather not as pleasant as that vegetable.

I was partly inspired to feature this plant by a comment made by my colleague Dave Simpson (Assistant Keeper of Systematics in Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, and one of the 'rotating' Keepers of the Herbarium at the moment) who said he was amused by some of the rather plain plants I include in this blog. He wasn't being derogatory and understood that for me, just about everything I see in London I see with fresh eyes. Mother-die is perhaps a plain plant, but en masse it's beautiful and the common names are irresistible.


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