“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.