Cow Parsley: All about an Umbellifer
Cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris was on the list of plants I recently illustrated for FOR Sweden. These plants are invasive in Scandinavia, and particularly troublesome in Iceland.
All the botanical illustrations I do for FOR are in a sketchbook format. I love working this way; it gives me the opportunity to include tons of details alongside a larger illustration of the whole plant. Over the years I’ve figured out what elements I need to include for each plant, so can figure out the composition before getting started. In general, details of flowers, fruits seeds, roots, and a cross section of the stem is needed. These elements need to be accompanied by a habit sketch, a full colour image that shows the entire plant growing, and close ups of any unusual characteristics that the plant may have. I always include written notes, as much to jog my own memory as to help the viewer.
Cow Parsley Sketchbook study Anthriscus sylvestris
Another appealing thing about the sketchbook studies is that you can leave parts of the illustration unfinished. This gives me the opportunity to get into really intense detail on things like an individual leaf, or one bract. The pressure to have the entire drawing completed in full colour is gone, which makes the process more relaxing.
Cow Parsley in the spring
For those of you who have been in the British countryside in early June, you’ll already know all about the Cow parsley. If frothes up along hedgerows, spilling tiny white flowers out into rarely-used roads and paths. At the same time, the May blossom is out, so you often have the wonderful sight of lots of white blossom curving down from the shrubs and trees, being met by the Cow parsley flowers growing upward from margins of fields and lanes. It’s very beautiful.
Drawing the Cow Parsley
Umbellifers, like Cow parsley, are a real challenge to draw. I’m sure I’ve moaned about the challenges before in blogs on Hogweeds. The problem is that the plant is often really tall and leaves spread widely from the stem. However, each element of the plant is tiny. The flowering heads are made from hundreds of tiny individual flowers. the outermost ones are zygomorphic, meaning their outermost petals are a different shape to those of the internal flowers. The leaves are divided, or pinnate. Sometimes divided several times over, as with the Cow parsley. This results in very beautiful and feathery leaves. But combining the size with the detail is very difficult, hence my aversion to all members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family. I love the way they look. I live in fear of being asked to illustrate them!
This commission came in at the height of Cow parsley season. I spent a morning gathering perfect plants, taking photos, and considering the best approach to the illustration. Once home, I pinned an entire plant up against the trampoline in the garden, with a sheet behind. I always take photos at the same time, sadly plants don’t live forever and some wither within hours of being picked.
Cow parsley set up to draw in the garden
Cow Parsley: Flowering times and leaves
Identifying Cow parsley is easy, mainly because of when it flowers. It’s the earliest of these white-flowered umbellifers to bloom, especially in the southern UK. And it’s certainly the most common. Look for it from early April through June; by July all you’ll see is some basal leaf rosettes and seed-heads.
Cow parsley sketchbook study done back in 2015
The leaves set the plant apart from other common and similar species, such as Hogweeds. They are 2-3 pinnate, which means they’re divided into leaflets, then each of these leaflets is sub divided. It gives them a feathery, fern-like appearance. They tend to be a muted spring green, although can be tinged red or yellow when stressed by drought.
Cow parsley leaf variety and plant overview to show difference between small upper and large lower leaves
Leaves either grow from a basal rosette at the bottom of the plant, or alternately up the stem. Lower leaves are borne on long, broad stalks, higher up the plant the leaves have far shorter and thinner petioles. The big basal leaves can be up to 30cm, with individual divided lobes measuring 10 – 30mm
Cow parsley: Stems
Stems are gently ridged, and hollow. They don’t have blotches of colour like some other Apiaceae species. The stems can grow from 50 – 150cm, making this quite a tall plant. Stems tend to be slightly downy at the top, and hairless down by the base of the plant.
Cow parsley stems
Cow parsley: Flowers
The frothy flowering heads of this plant family are umbels; these are lots of little groups of flowers carried on stalks or rays. Each umbel has 6 – 12 of these rays which are about 2cm long. The arrangement of flowers has males in the centre and hermaphrodite flowers around the margins. Unless you’re inclined to get your hand lens out, this won’t be immediately obvious, although you’ll certainly see a difference in size between the inside and margin flowers.
Cow parsley flowers and detail of a small umbel seen from above
Each flower has 5 white petals and is 3 – 5 mm across. A whole umbel measures 10 – 60cm, but there’s plenty of variety.
There are no bracts right below the flowers, but some appear lower down. Sepals are there but are so tiny as to be inconspicuous. There are 5 stamen and 2 thin stigma.
The outermost flowers are zygomorphic which means their petals are of different sizes.
Cow parsley: Fruit
Fruit are 6-9mm long and carried in pairs. They start green and become brown at maturity. Each one has a short beak-like tip.
Cow parsley seeds
Why do I love Cow parsley so much? Well, it’s a combination of factors. The delicacy of the frond-like leaves is visually very pleasing. The mass of scented flowers smell of the countryside. And the way Cow parsley lines lanes and hedges is a harbinger of warmer days, and long golden hours spent revelling in an English summertime. So, for all of these reasons, and despite the issues with detail and scale, I’m happy to go on learning and drawing this gorgeous plant.
Illustration completed for FSC guide to Flowers of Walks & Waysides