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Cows Parsley or Poison Hemlock – What’s the difference?

Is Cows Parsley Toxic or can it be confused with any toxic or poisonous plants?

So it’s that time of year where I see so many ID requests for cow parsley (or as some call it Wild Chervil).

when I first started foraging my guide books told me all about the wonders of the stuff, great as a parsley substitute and can be used in almost everything from salads to soups and stews as a pot herb flavouring. 

Sam Webster

Often those books don’t tell you this plant has an almost identical and very deadly look-alike! A nibble of hemlock and you could end up in hospital fighting for your life. Hemlock contains toxic alkaloids which affect your nervous system stopping essential organs working until eventually, your lungs stop working and you suffocate. Scary stuff but this is why it’s so important to be confident and certain with these two plants. 

Thankfully there are a few ways to tell them apart, but you really have to look closely at each plant, it took me quite a while to be happy that I had cow parsley and not hemlock, so don’t worry if you not confident picking cow parsley for a long time it is an advanced forager plant. 

So what are the differences between Cows Parsley and Poison Hemlock?

Well, it’s quite simple really: spotty and bald is bad! If you remember this little rule then that’s a great place to start.

Hemlock has purple spots on the stems (though young shoots often have very faint spots so it’s not always a reliable feature) and the stems are also hairless, they’re smooth, rounded and quite flexible until the flower stem is fully grown. The stems are also hollow and the plant (especially when you break a bit off) has an unpleasant chemical-like smell to it. 

Cow parsley stems are hairy (and ribbed if it’s the flower stem) and it’s quite rigid. Where it’s easiest to tell the two apart is the leaf stem, cow parsley is celery shaped, if you look down a cross-section of the stems there’s only a small hole, (so if it would make a good pea shooter it’s more likely you’ve got a stick of hemlock!) the smell of cow parsley is much nicer too, living up to its name and having a mild parsley smell to it! 

The leaves and flowers for both are almost identical so unless you’re a pro and know what you’re looking for go to the stems for your identification. There are some differences between the seeds, cow parsley seeds are straight, black and have a similar shape to a deer hoof print, hemlock the seeds are more curled and a lighter colour than cow parsley, they are also ribbed. 

Cow parsley 

hairy celery shaped leaf stem

Hairy spot-free ribbed stem

Poison Hemlock 

Rounded spotted, smooth and hair-free stems 

Young hemlock stems, spots are not yet showing but the stems are rounded and hairless

For more details on cows parsley including recipes click here