Written by By Matt Miller, CNN
What’s that fearsome-looking plant that keeps popping up in places where we’re supposed to be looking to avoid accidents?
It’s the ugly, invasive “cow parsnip,” and it poses a real threat to pedestrian safety in parts of London, Manchester and Tel Aviv. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which recently launched a campaign for the plant to be removed from multiple metropolitan locations, it doesn’t just make a mess of the environment: It also leads to deadly spider venom, and it leaves us with significant consequences when we get rid of it.
Now, at last, the city of London is doing something about it. Its department of environment has confirmed that it’s now “considering the means by which it can be made illegal to import the plant from outside Britain,” after consulting with the executive council of the Environment Agency of Greater London.
1 / 15 – Clough-Dogger
(kappa cuberum tree-cephalic ai) Muddy burrows made of cow parsnip and roots invade a native woodland at Clough-Dogger, a rowan woodland near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
The Department’s statement is a long way from the last word on the issue: As late as last month, in a statement to CNN in February, London officials described the plant as “not invasive” and “not a threat to public health,” so it seems the government’s new stance coincides with an expansion of existing developments.
The WWF said there are “growing local and national calls to remove the plant from a wide range of locations, where it’s blighting natural habitats, creating traffic risks and posing a hazard to people.”
It’s worth noting that while a European Directive prohibits the movement of invasive plants within the UK, it only refers to “foreign invaders” and thus the unwelcome parsnip would be exempt.
As a result, for the period June 1-September 30, 2018, the Business Secretary Greg Clark has suggested the government consider withdrawing “the EU directive on the movement of invasive plants and animals from Europe.”
Cow parsnip is much more frequent than some might think.
In 2018, according to the WWF, it was spotted in 576 London locations, and that’s just the ones it knows about. Last November, it was uncovered in 326 spots in Manchester, an influx the organization called “the largest invasion seen in the UK for many years.” Its presence has also increased in Tel Aviv.
Europe’s most infamous plant
Cow parsnip (kappa cuberum tree-cephalic ai) is perhaps best known from George Orwell’s 1984, where it is “the worst of all weeds.”
It is known in China and Russia as the “morchid” or the “fungus” (of the four major superplants in the book, along with basil, tomatoes and cabbage, it’s only the one that fails to appear at all), and it was carried from south Asia in open drums.
Cow parsnip belongs to the same family as mange weed (harrosh) — even if the WWF defines it as a more “man-like plant,” a member of the castor dioica family that’s higher in the long, narrow stock-grass family, and is essentially a carpet plant.
(Why wouldn’t you want one?) Cow parsnip grows up to a meter high and has dramatic leafy leaves that look like twisted bird feathers.
It’s cold and tough, and its thick bark can only be broken in a very hard, small area. And when it’s tough, it’s deadly: Cow parsnip has actually been known to be the causative agent in about 70 species of spider venom.
The WWF describes the plant’s potential adverse effect on individuals as something between “harm and death,” and it could lead to tissue damage, neurological damage and even damage to cardiovascular and respiratory functions.
Looking at one of the CWE’s more recent pics of cow parsnip, it’s easy to see why it might be a danger to health: It looks like one of those old, partially decomposed skunks!
But what about the environment? It harms wildlife, destroying hedgerows and shruby vegetation by drying them out, and can cause a number of problems for turf or lawn turf, because the plant leaves especially high holes in the plant and vegetation underneath.
It causes visible scarring