With smiles and tears I told my friends in Seward, Alaska goodbye last summer, holding close all the mementoes and all the memories that I brought home with me. It was an amazing trip, and one I will never forget. I was fortunate enough to live with a very good friend while I was there, and since we had a common love of plants, we spent our days and long into the daylight of the evenings basking in the delights of blooms and foliage that only plant lovers can know. She introduced me to alpines, to wild columbines, wild iris, and dandelions that were a big as the mums in the bouquet of any football homecoming queen. Flowers of my past, those I knew to be barely knee high back home, greeted me nose to nose and often towered above me. Alaska was unbelievably amazing and so very big.
As we were driving to Anchorage and my flight back home, we allowed ourselves many extra hours so that my friend Ava could introduce me to even more of her native plants. We drove back into roads that ended before they started. We crossed tiny one-lane bridges and watched birds I did not know at the water's edge. And we saw what to me were strange and unknown plants, exotic and mysterious. One of those plants was barely out of the ground. Ava called it pushki, a word unknown to me, but a name she knew from her childhood. There was something about the looks of it that nudged my oldest memories. I had seen that plant before, but did not know it by that name. Now after some time at home, I found myself thinking of Ava's plant, so I dug through my more than 600 Alaska photos and found what I was looking for. It took only a few minutes to find it on DG's Plant Files, and I grabbed onto that old memory and held tight. We called it cow cabbage back in the mountains of southeast Kentucky where I grew up. Some folks also called it cow parsnip.
Most of my knowledge of the plant came from my great Aunt Bett, and when she told me about a plant that she learned from her Native American ancestors, she was usually more right than wrong. Those ancestors called it Indian celery. Cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum, is native to North America, found from Labrador to Alaska, south to the mountains of Georgia and west to California. It grew wild in the rich moist soil of my mountains, but the first time I went to gather it with Aunt Bett, I had to go through what she called a skin test before she would let me touch it. I thought that was an impossible situation, and I told her so: "Aunt Bett, how can I do a skin test if I'm not allowed to touch that plant?" Normally my mother was telling me that I was creating "impossible situations", so I was pretty interested in knowing a plant could create an impossible situation too. She explained it to me this way: "Juices from that plant, no matter which part the juice comes from, might cause your skin to break out, an' sometimes it can cause blisters. It ain't poisonous to everbody, but just to some. I have to know if you get to breakin' out or not." Well, cow parsnips and I got along fine, but I remember that it didn't smell very good. The plant does cause skin irritations in some people, but I never heard if it ever did were I grew up. Maybe I was the only one who ever got up close and personal with it.
At any rate, her ancestors lived to be a ripe old age, and so did Aunt Bett, with nary a skin blemish to be found on her, so I guess she wasn't allergic to the plant either. I know now that the juices from the plant create a phototoxin that can act on contact with skin and its exposure. It will cause anything from a mild rash to blistering, or extreme dermatitis if one who is allergic is exposed to it.
Tall and robust, cow parsnip is one of the largest members of the carrot family. It is most commonly used today as a food. Just as Native Americans once gathered and cooked the roots, there are some wild-food enthusiasts who boil them as a vegetable. Young stems of the plant can be peeled and then cooked or eaten raw, and in a pinch ashes from the burned leaves can serve as a salt substitute. This was a trick that the Indians taught our early settlers.
The Native Americans took it one step further, because they valued cow parsnip for more than food. Some tribes used it as a charm that was supposed to drive off an evil spirit who stole the luck of deer hunters. Another tribe, being a bit more commercially inclined, passed off the forked roots as the more sought after ginseng.
Cow parsnip is a sturdy perennial that sometimes grows to 10 feet. It has a hollow stem that is grooved and covered with woolly hairs. It has compound leaves that consist of three large maplelike leaflets with white, wooly undersides; the leafstalks have large rather inflated sheaths at their bases. Flattened white flowerheads can measure almost a foot in diameter. I don't remember that they were that large in my mountains, but I am sure they will reach that width in Alaska.
As always my Aunt Bett left behind in her writings a bit of the history of the plant. Medicinally she said that her Cherokee ancestors had many uses for it. They ate the cooked roots for intestinal disorders, used the seeds in headache remedies, and stuffed raw pieces of the root into dental cavities to help ease toothaches. She mentioned other so called cures, including ear infections and epilepsy. I am sure we made infusions from some parts of it, but to my knowledge she only used it to make salves for skin problems. If you think about that, the salve itself could create additional problems if it were used on skin of one who was allergic to it. In all the years of playing around and seriously working right alongside Aunt Bett, I don't think anything she made ever caused anyone harm.
I think of that often, and am more amazed with every new impression I make about her. She was cautious to the extreme. She never attempted to use anything if she did not know its affect, and she only used it in very small amounts. She was no scientist, she only knew what her ancestors had taught her, and that is all that I know, too. As curious as I am about things, I would no more look to a plant as a sure cure that I cooked up myself, than I would attempt to swing from a rope into the depths of a dry canyon. But then Aunt Bett did not have the knowledge of scientist, pharmacologist, or physician at that time because they were few and far between in the mountains of southeast Kentucky in the '40s and '50s. She made do with what she had.
I know two things for sure about cow parsnip. You can make a great yellow dye from its roots, and as a salve it was rubbed all over me when mosquitoes were biting. Trust me, that scent was so nasty, neither mosquitoes, flies, gnats, dogs, cats, ticks, fleas or my ornery classmate Joe Devlin ever caused me a problem when it was spread on my skin. As a matter of fact, it worked much better than any asphidity bag.
The plant is now endangered in Kentucky, though it is considered invasive in some of our western states. I sure am glad I found it again in Alaska, because it grew along roadsides there, just as I remember it growing in the mountains years ago. Those flattened white flowerheads look like a stream of snow when they are in full bloom during the summer, and the sight of them cools any warm summer day.
And thanks to my Alaska friends, I have this sweet childhood memory back in my life.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY, 1986. Thank you Gitagal.
From Plant Files thanks to the photography of Kennedyh for the thumbnail; Gardenguykin for his shot of the leaf; Equilibrium for the cluster of blooms; and Weezingreens for the rosettes and the winding road. Weezingreens is one who had cow parsnips growing in her lovely gardens in Seward, Alaska last June. Thank you so much Ava Eads, Weezingreens and all my Alaska friends. I love my memories.
***(Author's note: I received the following from a reader, and I think his information contains excellent advice. I am including it here for that reason.)