This week has seen a quantum shift happen all around us. The crab apples in full sail like cumulo nimbus and the meadows flashing chrome-yellow as the buttercups push above the sward. The lane has suddenly narrowed with the cow parsley rising up and racing to flower. It is that moment we have been waiting for, the ground wet again from rain, warmth finally in the sun and growth with no excuse but to burgeon.
The lanes here are miraculous for a fortnight. Walk them in the morning and the verges reach out to touch you, dripping from the night before and spangled with starry speedwell, stitchwort and the first pinpricks of campion. All suspended in an extraordinary moment of aptly named ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’. Fresh and reaching and smelling of newness this interlude between spring and summer is dashed by the local farmer who brings out the flail to raze the cow parsley as it comes into full bloom. It taints the milk he says, but since he no longer droves the cows along the lane I think it is more about order and control. The carnage makes me smart. He doesn’t touch the verge on our side – rules are rules – which we leave long and unkempt and brushing the windscreens.
I have invited the cow parsley into the garden in its cultivated form Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Raven’s Wing’. Darker for the contrast of pale flower as they begin to expand and lace, I watch the new growth closely from the moment it begins to muster. This is usually just as the snowdrops fade and you become ready for something new. The filigree newness of ‘Raven’s Wing’ shows its true colours early and the best of the seedlings are dark from the moment they produce the first true leaves. Our lane-side population have their influence though and many seedlings begin their reversion back to type, turning first chocolatey instead of the deep plum purple and then green. The early vigil to winkle out the plants that revert is important so that I am marking the difference between the hedgerows and the garden proper. An echo of our surroundings, a segue and a gentle transition between the wild and the cultivated.
Derry Watkins has a darker version named Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Dial Park’, which I will try here too because cow parsley goes with almost anything. Go to Great Dixter at this particular zenith in a fortnight and you will see how extraordinary it is where Fergus has invited the wild form into the borders. I have to exercise control here, leaving just a single plant, the best of the dark-leaved forms to seed where I want the lace amongst slower-to-rise perennials. The majority are cut as soon as I see the seed ripening, since they are profligate seeders. Being hedgerow plants anthriscus are as happy in sun as they are in shade and use their tolerance of the latter to take their time under the cover of summer growth to send down taproots into the crowns of plants you’d rather they didn’t. Their early growth can be the undoing of a later-to-rise aster or sun-loving iris or nerine.
Cow parsley, also known as wild chervil, opens the season of umbellifers here and the laciness of the umbels is something I love and include for their loftiness and suspension. Chaerophyllum hirsutum ‘Roseum’ is already in flower too, a pink form of Hairy Chervil with a flowering season of about a month. The flowers start low and on a level with brunnera, but rise up to hip height to accompany the first of the Iris sibirica. Another related umbellifer which flowers at the same time is Myrrhis odorata. Before sugar was freely available the leaf and seed of Sweet Cicely were used to sweeten cakes. We have it here in the herb garden, where it is happy in the shadows of the Afghan fig and giant fennels. Its filigree of aromatic early growth is good beneath plants that take over later, but if you are not to have a thousand seedlings it is best to remove the seed heads once you have enjoyed them green and before they start to drop and conquer all they survey.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 15 May 2021