Plant Tales 1: Anthriscus Sylvestris 'Cow Parsley'

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I fell in love with cow parsley as a boy. I knew it as a common weed and, running amok in our garden woodland, it was considered anything but precious. My brother and I would cut linking pathways through it – an early exploration into garden design? We used hazel sticks as machetes to feel like Amazonian explorers, or bare-chested, buff Tarzans!

The hardy, ephemeral nature of cow parsley meant that each year we could cut different pathways through. The fact that it was not “precious”– the antithesis of the “look but don’t touch” attitude of more formal gardens which require us to admire from a respectful distance – allowed me to make a much deeper connection with these plants.

The “keep off the grass” ethos isn’t for me, I’d prefer to let kids to interact with nature in a fun way. Even to pick plants – dare I say, even the wild ones! It's a sensitive subject and with good cause – agriculture and construction have pinched too much of the land, whilst sufficient space for rambling wild flora has not been allowed for. But I cannot help but be wary of the tendency to become too precious. 

More space for wild flora please, Teresa!

Each spring, after a long winter, the almost overnight burst of height and abundant umbel flower heads, wafting on a slender stem is intoxicating – especially as it is often coupled with the snow-like blossom of the may tree (hawthorn).

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I love the opportunity to using these native hedgerow and woodland plants in a garden setting – it feels like a case of “poacher turned gamekeeper” – they form an interesting counterpoint to rigorous underlying geometry. This appeals to the wistful nostalgic in me and allows me to bring little of the wild English countryside into even the most contemporary urban garden.

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We often use the variety Anthriscus sylvestris,'Ravenswing' – its deep-purple, lacy leaves associate with other deep reds such as aquilegias or cirsium and grasses. We used this approach in our last Chelsea garden “Nature Ascending” – the combination provided an instant touch of the wild and unkempt. It is also a great linking plant which other forms play well against.

Treated as a biennial or a short-lived perennial it can self-seed freely but you can remove the spent flower heads if preferred.