“Harry waved his wand and shouted “Heracleum Sphondylium!” And from out of the ground a plant began to emerge.”
Common hogweed begins to sprout fairly early in Cornwall thanks to our temperate climate. I like to describe hogweed as tasting like asparagus on steroids, but this description does not do it justice. I have friends who dislike asparagus but adore hogweed. The young leaves are the best part, but do need to be cooked to remove any bitter notes. I particularly like to pair hogweed with eggs, but it also can make a great addition to any dish using greens or stir fries. I was asked to cater for a gin cruise a few years ago, and one of the canapés I created was hogweed frittatas. The aromatic flavour of the hogweed works so well with gin that I received praise on how well my canapés complimented the gins on offer, so I explained that I had created my canapés with this in mind! The young hogweed shoots are delicious made into tempura (we foragers love to tempura everything!), as well as the unopened flower heads that can also be used as a broccoli substitute. The larger leaves we often make into crisps: coat with oil and sprinkle with salt and cook on high for a few minutes (although this can be a bit hit and miss!).
I understand it has escaped from gardens in other parts of the country and has become problematic as specialist teams are needed to remove them. Giant hogweed can often be found near canals and waterbeds, it was popular for a time as an exotic garden plant due to its enormous size, but due to its scarcity here I haven't had the opportunity myself to see this monster in the flesh
A selection of apiaceae leaves. Left to right these are: Heracleum sphondylium (large and small leaves), then Dacus carota, next to Oenanthe crocata with the last 2 leaves being Smyrnium olusatrum (peeking in the edge of the image to the very far right are the flowers of what I think are Conopodium majus).
I explain to children about the sap in hogweed and how they must be careful to not get it on their hands (because it has a lovely hollow stem children are often tempted to use it as a pea shooter!). When I then ask whether they think it is edible or deadible, the answer is always deadible. But, as the reaction is triggered by sunlight, and as most of us know (unlike Donald Trump!) U.V. is unable to pass through our skin and enter our digestive system, hogweed is perfectly safe to eat!
A word of caution, hogweed is a member of the apiaceae family and to the amateur eye, the members of this family can resemble one another. The apiaceae family includes the most poisonous plants in the U.K., which are Conium maculatum and Oenanthe crocata (common hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort), so it is really important to ensure you get the right identification. Despite this, I think hogweed is one of the easiest apiaceae to identify, and if you want to focus on only one plant to forage I recommend hogweed because it is very delicious. I know children as young as 6 being able to accurately distinguish between hogweed and hemlock water-dropwort. The key is caution: fear gets in the way of learning, whilst caution keeps you safe.
A beginner's hack which will help you distinguish between certain apiaceae but isn’t a blanket tool for identification is to look for a U-shaped leaf stem covered in fine hair. Hogweed, as well as wild carrot and cow parsley (Dacus carota and Anthriscus sylvestris) all have this distinctive feature. The highly poisonous apiaceae Conium maculatum and Oenanthe crocata (common hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort) both lack these features: they have smooth, hairless stems which are circular in shape. For those who are worried, giant hogweed also lacks the groove down the leaf stem, but does have very sharp, prickly spines (unlike the hairs on hogweed, which are soft and almost fluffy). This tool can help you to narrow down which apiaceae you have and aid to make an accurate id!