I visited Woodford Halse earlier today for a much-needed tonsorial operation in the form of a Number 4 back and sides. My return to Daventry was via back roads and, on a whim, I stopped to examine the Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, still flowering in some profusion at the roadside.
Hogweed is one of the most familiar of our roadside plants. Near Woodford
Halse, Northants. 22 September, 2017
For entomologists it is an extremely important plant, the broad umbels each acting as a dinner table for insects of several orders. In fact around fifty of the plant's visitors contain the words heraclei or heraclea in their specific epithets [Ref 1]. We take hogweed for granted yet, apart from these attendant insects it is of interest in other ways. For example, in the early years of the 20th Century experiments were conducted to extract sugar from the stems. They were not effective with 40 pounds of stems only yielding about one pound of sugar[Ref 2]. Nevertheless it is a very nutritious plant once fed to pigs, hence the common name, and in winter the young 'spears' may be cooked like broccoli.
Its close relative, the infamous Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is well-known for causing photo-dermatitis when handled, making the skin extremely sensitive to light and resulting in damage similar to burns and sometimes causing serious scarring. What is less well-known is that similar, though less severe, damage can result from handling hogweed. As children we would use the hollow stems of this plant as peashooters as an alternative to Cow Parsley. How we got away without damaged lips is a mystery.