It may have come (and largely) gone as all the rage at Chelsea, but in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere, Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is a landscape staple, filling the country roads, alleys and meadows throughout the months of April, May and June. The white, frothy umbels positively bubble out of every available space each year, especially in shady lanes which shrink to impassable widths. The countryside looks to be covered in low lying cloud and it’s all very beautiful.
Sometimes, when the council has the funding, the alleys are strimmed before the effervescence begins. Those years are bereft of a certain amount of fun and exuberance, even if, after a good rain shower, the flower heads act exactly like clouds, emptying their wet load on to passing (dog) walkers!
The flower clusters on Cow Parsley are great for beneficial insects like hoverflies, because hoverflies have small mouths and like the tiny flowers.
You will often also be able spot red carapaces of soldier beetles against the lacy white flowers:
Later, the seeds are an attraction for various seed-eating birds. So if you can squeeze Cow Parsley into an informal area of your garden, then it is a great, pretty wildlife resource. I’ve got it in a small meadow area at the back of the garden, but for a more elegant, garden-worthy form there is Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. Ravenswing has dark ferny leaves underpinning the tiny white sprays of flower.
Once the flowers have gone to seed, the whole plant dies back quite rapidly leaving hollow stem tubes that are frequently put to use as pea-shooters (although I am told that haws, from hawthorn, or lentils make better ammo due to the size and shape of the tubes). Apparently, one of the easiest ways to identify Cow Parsley from the array of similar carrot-family, but potential toxic umbellifers (e.g. hemlock or hogweed) is by the U-shaped groove down the leaf stalk. The hollow tubes can also be gathered, cut and bundled together to make cheap, short-term bug hotels.
Cow parsley likes well-drained soil, so it might seem surprising to see so much of it around the fens, but its absence is a good way to spot the soggy areas.
Of course, with so much froth around, you never know what you will find in a field of Cow Parsley!