Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Cow parsley

2014-05-08 14.05.041. As a child in Liverpool in the 1950s we were terrified of mother-die – cow parsley [ Woolwich Common, London, June 2021].

2. I was brought up in a village on the west side of Hull in East Yorks.  This was the [19]40s and 50s.  The plant I later got to know as cow parsley was always called dead-man’s oatmeal.  We also found that it made a good pea-shooter [e-mail, July 2020].

3. Cow parsley in Manchester [1950s & 60s]:  Well known in my childhood as mother-die with the folklore that your mother would die if the plant was taken indoors.  Horrid little boys would chase us and try to stick the mother-die down our jumpers hoping we wouldn’t notice until we got into the house [Brompton Cemetery, London, March 2018].

4. [I knew cow parsley as] Scabby May.  I picked this as a child in Mountain Ash, South Wales. (I’m 73 now).  Never allowed to take into the house, considered unlucky, and if handled could bring out a rash [Brompton Cemetery, London, April 2017].

5.  In the 1950s in Moss Side in Manchester my mother went absolutely mad when I brought cow parsley into the house as a gift for her.  She told me it was called mother’s-die and insisted it was thrown out of the house immediately as she feared it would predict her demise.  It didn’t (of course), but I was amazed at her reaction [e-mail, June 2016].

6. Cow parsley:  Having been brought up [back in the mid 1950s] in the country about 20 miles north of Glasgow I remember cutting the stems of this plant to use as pea-shooters, using mainly hawthorn berries.  We called it dog’s flourish [e-mail, August 2015].

7.   As a child I knew cow parsley by the name dead-man’s flourish.  I was told that superstition had it that if it was brought into the house someone would die.  I believe that this was  because it was found commonly on graves.  I was brought up in the 1960s in Edinburgh, but the name was handed down  from my grandmother who was born and brought up in Roberton, South Lanarkshire, in the 1870s/80s [e-mail, July 2015].

8.  Cow parsley – called mother’s dead in Yorkshire/Lancashire, 1930-45ish.  Might be because it resembles hemlock [Conium maculatum] and might be picked by mistake.  ‘Never bring it into the house.’  Also known as Queen Anne’s lace [South London Botanical Institute, June 2015].

9.  Known as devil’s bread in north-east Ireland, 1970s-80s [Natural History Museum, London, June 2015].

10.  My mother [Southfields, London] referred to cow parsley as  break-your-mother’s heart [Bromley, Kent, January 2015].

11.  Cow parsley – called keks in the West Riding of Yorkshire, near Leeds, where I lived as a child in the 1950s.  Also known by this name by my parents and grandfather, who were also Yorkshire people.  As children we used to make pea-shooters from the hollow stems [Alderney, Channel Islands, April 2014].

12.  I have not heard of mother-die for some 70 years. When I was a kid in the north of England we were almost frightened of it because we believed that if you took it into the house your mother would die. It was cow parsley [Bow, London, August 2011].

13. [Looking at dead stems of cow parsley] ‘When they’re dried like that they make pea-shooters, well, actually, lentils fit better.’
‘Where was that?’
‘Warwickshire; my father taught me’ [Tooting, London, October 2010].

14.  [Dorset]  I was aware of the tradition that one shouldn’t bring cow parsley into the house.  My mother disregarded this, it was part of her nature and she liked making flower arrangements.  Cow parsley tended to drop its flowers quickly and make a mess when brought indoors.  It sometimes had lots of little black flies hidden in the flowers.  May, or hawthorn, was similarly unlucky.  We were warned never to bring it into the house [Orpington, Kent, February 2009].

15. We used cow parsley stems as pea-shooters, using hawthorn [Crataegus] berries – agars – as peas [Hillingdon, Middlesex, March 2001].

16. My memories are of the 1950s, Monmouthshire …
Snake plant – cow parsley … old hollow stems made into pea-shooters [East Finchley, London, March 1998].

17. In my childhood (80 years ago) we used cow parsley flowers as food at our outdoor ‘tea parties’. It was known as poor man’s oatmeal [Burgess Hill, West Sussex, February 1998].

18. I spent my childhood in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, where cow parsley was called mother-die [Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, May 1997].

19. We always used to call cow parsley deadman’ s oatmeal – that was in Northumberland [Welling, Kent, November 1995].

20. I have seen Devon children make whistles out of stems of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). The process is a bit hit and miss, like many such traditions, but it’s worth a try [Stoke, Plymouth, January 1993].

21. I don’t know if anyone’s sent you central west Scotland’s name for Anthriscus sylvestris – dog’s flourish? As a local in her 70s said, ‘well, it grows on the verges where the dogs have been!’ [Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, February 1991].

22. As a child in the Ipswich district I always called cow parsley dead-man’s flesh – I assume because so much of it grows in grave yards. I didn’t know of any other name for the plant until much later [Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk, September 1985].

Images:  main, Dorchester, Dorset April 2014; upper inset, Beddington Park, London Borough of Sutton, May 2014; second from top inset, one of several flower arrangements incorporating cow parsley, St Laurence’s [Anglican] church, Ludlow, Shropshire, Saturday 27 May 2023; second from bottom, Salisbury Cathedral Close, Wiltshire, February 2024.