- Edibility – 5/5 – young shoots, green flower buds – the finest tasting vegetable in the UK in my opinion! Seeds – 4/5 – pickled when green or used as a spice, especially when dried. Mature leaves – 1/5 – Generally best avoided, but can be fermented. Be sure to read warnings on handling below. Not recommended for eating raw.
- Identification – 3/5 – one of the easier of the potentially deadly carrot family to ID, but caution still necessary as the tasty young shoots are not fully formed. Learn more about the carrot family on my Introduction to the Carrot Family for Foragers. And remember – we are talking about common hogweed here – not giant hogweed, which should not be eaten or even handled – see below. Care should also be taken when handling common hogweed – see below. Heracleum persicum in the middle east, and heracleum maximum in N. America are closely related, and the seeds of these at least can be used in similar ways, though i’d recommend conducting your own research around uses/safe handling.
- Distribution – 5/5 – Very common
- Season – March – September, seeds all year.
- Habitat – Verges, hedgerows, field/wood edges, waste ground, rough fields and unkempt gardens. – particularly abundant coastally, though not specifically a maritime plant
Hogweed is one of the most common of the carrot family, becoming the dominant white roadside umbilifer of summer and early autumn after the cow parsley has dwindled. As always, caution is recommended when picking. Look for:
- Leaves: Large, 3-5 lobes, hairy, serrated.
- Stem: Hairy, grooved, hollow, striated, starting purple (not blotchy), becoming green, new joints and flower buds emerge from papery ‘parcels’. 1-2 metres tall fully grown.
- Flowers: White to pink, 5 petalled, 15-30 rays arranged in umbels of up to 30cm. Petals on outside of umbel usually larger. From a distance, I recognise hogweed by the flattened tops of the umbels – though this is insufficient for full identification.
Care should be taken when picking as chemicals in the sap can cause phytophotodermititus – especially in strong sunlight – gloves recommended for the thin-skinned, especially children. This is less of a problem when picking the young shoots and flower bud “parcels” – which is what you’re after. During summer, as the plant matures, the sap becomes still more phytopohototoxic and I restrict my handling to just snipping off seed umbels. Unfortunately instances of children getting burned after playing with common hogweed are not uncommon (the hollow stems make appealing pea shooters) – please educate them on potential dangers (see in the comments section below for further discussion of this).
Young hogweed shoots are one of my favourite wild vegetables, reminiscent of asparagus and parsley and so much more. They grow back after harvesting and can provide a steady crop throughout the summer. Fried in butter until almost crisped and caramelised, they are unsurpassed and best eaten as a stand alone vegetable. Stir through some sorrel leaves at the last minute to add some acidity to cut through the butter. They require no seasoning, having a rich and balanced flavour without help.
The unopened flower buds are also delicious and come in their own wee packages which means you can steam them without losing any of their sensational flavour – a glamourous steamed accompaniment to fish. Add them peeled to stir-fries, deep fry in tempura batter or to pickles. Older leaves are not so appealing, but are still edible and make an excellent addition to a stock pot.
When the plant starts to die back for the year, you will still be able to harvest the flat, round seed pods which have an extraordinary taste. I have heard them variously described as tasting of orange peel, cardamon, coriander, ginger, liquorice and burned cedar – probably a combination of all of those is a fair reflection. They aren’t for everyone – a bit love-hate – polarising opinion about 70 (love) to 30 (hate) when people taste them on my walks. If you do taste the green seeds raw, I recommend you take just a tiny nibble first time round. Some people experience a tingling sensation on the tongue. I have heard of one case of someone suffering an allergic reaction, but of the thousands of people who have tried them on my walks, nobody has had any problem. Read more about the wild food, allergies, and the spectrum of edibility here.
When still green they are pungently bitter so a little goes a long way. I add the whole green casings as “flavour bombs” in curry mixes, or pickle them and toss through salads with smoked eggs or pickled fish. Try infusing them in hot butter then discard and use the butter like ghee in curries or for cooking fish or sauteing sea beet or other veg.
Green seed casings will dry out naturally on the plant, becoming papery disks which can be harvested from sheltered locations well into the winter. I harvest whole umbels then leave them to fully dry in a warm, airy room, before storing in bags. The seed casings drop off the umbels naturally in the bag. The flavour of dried seed casings (use the whole thing) is mellower, becoming more gingery and floral. The dry seeds of a very close relation to common hogweed, heracleum persicum, is widely used in Iranian cuisine, where the spice known as golpar, and used in savoury dishes. As with many spices, dry toasting the seeds before use lifts the aromatics.
The dry seed casings can be ground and used in baking – try adding them to flapjack or they make a sublime parkin. My friends Kath and Liz of Kather’s Kitchen and Forage Fine Foods came up with the original recipe and here it is. Note: Kather’s recipe uses only a tiny proportion of hogweed seeds. I can recommend subbing out most of the ginger and replacing it with up to four times the quantity of ground hogseeds, but you may prefer to start with the original recipe.
The dry seeds also work extremely well in drinks and cocktails. Try infusing them into vermouths and gin, or adding them as a mulling spice to winter warmers.
I like the seeds best of all as a wayside nibble – just one really gets the taste buds partying – especially with a single sea buckthorn berry! Kapow! I add hogweed seed bitters to my wild whisky sour cocktails.
Be sure not to mistake common hogweed for its big brother giant hogweed (heracleum mantegazzianum). This is not edible and is aggressively phototoxic. It grows much bigger – up to 5 metres – and has much more aggressively serrated leaves and a purple blotched bristly stem. A truly remarkable plant-triffid that you can almost see growing! Look out for previous year’s enormous canes and skeletal flower remains when leaves are just emerging. The three pictures below are all of giant hogweed.