Common Hogweed


Weed (n): A plant that has mastered every aspect of survival except growing in straight lines

Of the many overlooked, edible “weeds” in the world, common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) has the widest discrepancy between deliciousness and neglect.

It is, by some way, my favourite edible plant – and I eat a lot of delicious plants. Yet its Wikipedia entry doesn’t even mention edible uses.

There are a few reasons for this:

It has been used historically as fodder for livestock, and the scent of its flowers (the only non-delicious part) is of dung and pigs (to attract midges, flies and hoverflies) perhaps explaining the unglamorous common English name.

Common hogweed also comes with a health warning. As the leaves develop and start to photosynthesise, it develops a sap that can sensitise the skin to bright sunlight, to the point where a recurring burn appears. A few factors can predispose people to this problem: pale skin, bright sunlight (phytophotodermititus is more common in southern latitudes), stage of growth of the plant, and the specific phenotype of individual plants (there are many variations of H.sphondylium, some genetically distinct, others localised variants).

Thirdly, common hogweed has a scary big brother – giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). This enormous, fast-growing plant was introduced by Victorian collectors and liked it rather too much in the UK, to the point where it is now considered a significant nuisance (or an “invasive” species although all plants are “invasive” given the chance!). Giant hogweed is aggressively phytophototoxic and has no known edible uses.

I sincerely hope that these necessary warnings won’t stop you exploring the fantastic flavours and uses of common hogweed. Learn to distinguish it from its toxic relatives, wear gloves if handling it in summer or if you have sensitive skin, and don’t eat it raw.

Usually ignored, often despised, yet to the mindful forager common hogweed is one of the truly great wild food resources

With this in mind, here are just a few uses of this remarkable plant:

Roots: These have an intense aromatic quality, akin to angelica (though I much prefer it), with both deep earthy bass notes and bright herbaceous aromatics. Fantastic infused into aromatised wines and bitters and makes a great stand-alone schnapps.

Young Shoots: These have a unique, perfectly balanced and seasoned flavour profile that has been likened to asparagus but tastes of so much more. Fried in butter they are a show-stopping spring vegetable. I am still exploring the full potential of the shoots in drinks.

Flower Buds: Harvest while still green and forming (like squished broccoli florets) in papery parcels at stem nodes. Similar flavour profile to young shoots. Can be “steamed in their packets”!

Green Seed Pods: These are a powerful and intense concentration of the bitter and pungent qualities of the plant. Make exciting “flavour bomb” pickles and transfer into tincture very well for bitter making.

Dry Brown Seed Pods: As the seed pods dry, they turn into papery discs that have a truly thrilling flavour profile, likened to orange peel, cardamom, burned cedar and ginger. Use as a spice for cakes, mulling, mists, bitters, schnapps, aromatised wines and wherever your imagination takes you…

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