Heracleum maximum commonly known as cow parsnip (also known as Indian celery, Indian rhubarb or pushki) is a plant that is Native to North America. Cow parsnip is distributed throughout most of the continental United States except the Gulf coast. It occurs from sea level to about 9000 ft, and is especially prevalent in Alaska.
I have debated with myself about whether or not to write about this plant. There are two problems with this plant. One it closely resembles Poison Hemlock, Water Hemlock and Bulbiferous Hemlock and Giant Hogweed. All parts of these plants are extremely poisonous. Second, Cow parsnip juices contain a phototoxin that acts on contact with skin and is triggered by exposure to ultraviolet light. The reaction differs from next to nothing to a mild rash to blistering and severe dermatitis. If you come in contact with the plant you need to wash immediately.
That being said the Native Americans ate this plant and used it in other way. California Indians ate the fresh roots raw. Virtually every tribe of Native Americans along the west coast used it as a green vegetable. The young stalks and stems are collected before the flower matures. They are then peeled and eaten raw or in the later stages they are boiled. Immature flowers were also peeled and roasted or boiled. They are mild and sweet tasting despite the pungent odor of the leaves and outer skin.
Native American had many different uses for this plant. It was commonly used to make poultices to be applied to bruises or sores. The dried stems were used as drinking straws for the old or infirmed, and to make flutes for children
Another use was as a fish sedative. The stalks and leaves were mashed and the mixtures was put in the water, at low dosages it acted as a sedative and in high does as a poison. Using it at low dosages allows you to be selective about which fish you keep. The rest could be released.
The problem as I mentioned earlier in the post is being sure you have correctly identified the plant. Cow parsnip is a tall plant, reaching to heights of over 7 feet. It has lush, green leaves that emerge in early spring, and are followed by flower stalks up to 5 feet tall. The blooms can measure 1 – 1 1/2 foot across. The flowers are white, lacy, flat-topped cluster.
Cow parsnip is a plant that you have to be sure of it identification, but once you have correctly identified it, the plant can provide a lot of food.