Hogweed

(Heracleum sphondyllium) The young shoots are edible, boiled as in cooking asparagus (they say it actually tastes not unlike asparagus). Later in the season the stalks can be used as a green vegetable, but then the bitter outer parts have to be peeled off. Pigs like it - why else should it be called Hogweed? All over the country in days gone by, the plant has been gathered as free food for pigs.

There is one superstition recorded that seems on the face of it dubious. Scrammy-handed, we are told (Waters) is a Wye Valley dialect expression meaning left-handed, or awkward. Children called the hogweed scrammy-handed, because they believe that they will become left-handed if they pick the plant with the left hand. Elsewhere, this plant, along with other umbellifers like hemlock, have the name Scabby Hands. The superstition sounds very like a rationalization, though "scram" certainly means awkward. Some of the names given to the plant are interesting, Kex, for instance, and its many variants. All the umbellifers have this name, which really belongs to the dried, hollow stalks. A number of proverbial phrases in English refer to kex, or kecksies. 'As dry as a kex' is the best known, but there are others, like 'as light as a kex', and 'as hollow as a kex', the last used in Yorkshire to describe a deceitful man. (Easther). Hogweed's hollow stems provide another source of local names. You can, for instance, drink your cider through them at a pinch, hence Wippul-squip. Surely the same applies to the picturesque Somerset name Lumper-scrump, or Limper-scrimp (Britten & Holland), and so on, to the Devonshire Humpy-scrumple (Macmillan). Another use for these hollow stems is made manifest in the Scottish name Bear-skeiters. 'Bear' is not 'bear', but 'bere', so the whole name means barley-shooters, for children use the stems as pea-shooters. Instead of peas, they shoot out barley, or oats (then it is Ait-skeiters).

It has its medicinal uses: it has been shown to affect blood pressure, and the juice was used in East Anglia to cure warts (V G Hatfield. 1994). It has also, so it is claimed, been shown to have a distinct aphrodisiac effect (Schauenberg & Paris). Gerard reckoned the seed "scoureth out flegmaticke matter through the guts, it healeth the jaundice, the falling sickness, the strangling of the mother, and them that are short winded ..."

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