Talk about giving a plant a bad name! The hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in my garden is neither a weed nor for the hogs: it is a valued vegetable. It does need to be handled with some care though.
Hogweed has some pretty knowledgeable fans. Roger Phillips, author of Wild Food, describes it as ‘Unequivocally one of the best vegetables I have eaten.” while Margaret Lear of Plants with Purpose, writing in A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, calls it “an epicurean vegetable for the hungry gap”.
Like many other members of the carrot family, the best part of hogweed is the young leaf shoot, picked before the leaves have properly unfurled. The tastiest way of eating them is to sauté them in butter until they develop a melting texture and a slightly caramelised taste. Achieving this can take some practice though. Undercooked hogweed is not at all nice and might be dangerous. I find that it requires some moisture to cook right through, so wash the shoots before cooking and use without drying, and add a little more water later on if required. The exact cooking time is around 10 minutes, but varies with the size of the shoots. Larger shoots take longer to cook and it can be a good idea to cook them first, adding in smaller ones later. A variation is to add a little stock after frying, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes to braise them.
One of my favourite uses of hogweed is to make soup. I slice up the shoots to 1 cm lengths and cook for 10 minutes in some stock along with some wild garlic leaves, then use a hand blender to blend it to a smooth consistency. The result is very creamy, with a delicate but distinctive flavour. Apart from this, it is a useful vegetable in any recipe where it will be cooked through, such as stews, curries or pasta sauce. I have also found it very tasty cooked with other shoots in tempura.
Hogweed leaf stems are covered in tiny hairs which I usually prefer to rub off before cooking. As they get older they get stringier and it can be worth peeling larger shoots. They store well in the fridge for a few days: in my experience they store much better if dry, so best to leave cleaning them until you are ready to use them (but see the note below). If blanched in hot water for a couple of minutes they will freeze well for later use.
Other parts of hogweed that can be used include the immature flower heads, which come neatly wrapped in papery bracts, and the seeds. The flower heads are best while still inside the bract although they remain edible until the flowers themselves open. The dried seeds have a wonderful citrusy aroma which makes an excellent addition to a spice mix. Even more exotic uses of hogweed have been reported: the Plants for a Future website says that the leaf stems are tied in bundles and dried in the sun until a sweet substance resembling sugar forms on them. Professional forager Miles Irving reports that the original borscht, now a pickled beetroot soup, was made from lacto-fermented hogweed leaves.
However, before you go rushing out to the hedgerows and roadsides where hogweed likes to grow I need to sound several notes of caution. Hogweed can be dangerous: the risks come both from the possibility of confusing it with other species and from hazards that are present even if you have the right plant.
The most obvious danger with hogweed comes from confusing it with its close relative giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzeniga), which can cause disabling burns from contact with its sap. It is also has a superficial resemblance to several other members of the carrot family, some of which are distinctly poisonous. If you are going to try to eat hogweed, make sure that you can positively identify it using a guide which is comprehensive enough to distinguish it from all the possible lookalikes in your area. In particular, get to know what young giant hogweed looks like and how to tell it apart from normal hogweed. If you aren’t sure, don’t put it in your mouth (in fact be careful about even touching it)! That said, hogweed is quite distinctive once you get to know it.
If that weren’t enough, even when you do have the genuine article hogweed can be harmful due to toxins called furanocoumarins found in its sap. These can cause milder but still quite nasty versions of the burns caused by giant hogweed. I know this from painful personal experience after getting some of its sap on my arm while strimming in hot, sunny weather (we aren’t cursed with such weather too often in Aberdeen, so I wasn’t aware of the risk at the time). The affected area formed a wound that took months to get better since every time it healed and the scab came off the new skin underneath was damaged again.
As bad as this sounds, a little care is enough to avoid getting the sap on your skin in strong sunlight and I have never had any problems while handling it for food preparation. I always make sure to wash my hands immediately after cutting it up but that is all. Furanocoumarins are also found in more usual vegetables such as celery, parsnips and citrus fruits like grapefruit. In grapefruit they are famous for inhibiting the action of certain drugs, so it is quite possible that this might also be true with hogweed. Furanocoumarin levels are generally increased by damage and during storage, so it may be sensible to use your hogweed fresh and trim off the ends of the shoots. Quite how much furanocoumarin is in British hogweed is uncertain. Plants for a Future suggest that the sub-species sphondylium and sibirica (the only two listed on the Euro+Med plant database as being present in Britain) are not phototoxic but I would be sceptical about that.
Given that hogweed must be one of our most common wild plants, why might you want to grow it? I have some in my garden so that I can always be sure of finding some whenever I need. I can also extend the season as hogweed resprouts through most of the year if it is cut down. Otherwise the edible shoots are mostly over by the end of June. It is a woodland edge species, enjoying a rich soil and a little shelter but not growing in deep shade. If growing it in your garden it is advisable to remove the seed heads as it can self seed quite freely.
All in all, hogweed may require some care but I would rather get to know the dangers of plants and then use them safely than live in ignorance and fear of them. The reward is the distinctive taste of a vegetable that well deserves the praise heaped upon it by wild food enthusiasts.