In Praise of Cow Parsley

by James Hamilton

E verywhere. Now. When the sun sinks it slants through cow parsley banks in a shower of gold. Then at dawn the light comes surprisingly cross-wise, picking out every last floret, noting each on its morning roll-call. Towards noon the stems cast shadow, and hold their blooms proudly aloft like babies at a mass baptism, and we can see the white cloud shapes as they muster in their christening gowns.

Cow parsley is in every corner of every field, along ditches, below hedges, bursting out behind sheds and compost heaps, in woods and copses, and in clumps and patches along the banks of the Cherwell. Nonetheless it is an invisible presence, ectoplasmic, part of the background noise in our eyes.

I have picked a stem — it comes up to my chest. Its lower leaves are yellowed by the occluded light in the grass, but further up it branches once, then twice, then a third time, making by now eight strong bright green stems. At each break a little sprig of ferny leaf appears, like the twiddle on the flute in a symphony's quiet moment, before the violins return. That's just the overture. The stems divide and divide, the rhythm becoming faster and faster as the music reaches its silent crescendo and the cow parsley begins its joyful cadenza.

Now it echoes itself, makes a play within its own play. The main stem has turned into thirty five miniature cow parsleys, and each now begins its own song. Each one of these breaks into three. Of those three, one comes away, up and up, and from its point of spring I can count nine little sprouts, each one less than two centimetres long, and each echoing in perfection the shape of the parent plant. From the 120 centimetres of the main stem we are down to 180 millimetres, and still the shape of the whole is perfectly repeated. Even the flute's twiddle, the ferny leaf sprig, is visible there as a tiny note from beyond the valley.

We go on. At the end of the centimetre stem is another flowering head. The one I am holding has eight branches, each five or six millimetres long. At the end of each of these is a flowerhead of five, six petals — but my eyes are not strong enough to make them out, still less to count them accurately. These smell like lambent marmalade mixed with rose petal, but my nose may be deceiving me, because on the table is a rose, and I had marmalade at breakfast. But I am not mistaken that on one modest cow parsley stem there are forty five thousand three hundred and sixty flowers, give or take.

These, in your garden, behind your shed, under your hedge, are our very own clouds of unknowing — Anthriscus Sylvestris — multiplied even towards infinity. I have picked just one.

SEE ALSO by James Hamilton:
One Last Job
A Year Locked Down in Kidlington
In Praise of Cow Parsley
An Extraordinary Journey
Blossom Fortnight
Pavements and Lids
There's Much Yet to Celebrate

James Hamilton is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire. He is a curator, writer and lecturer, who entered the University of Manchester 1966 to read Mechanical Engineering, and emerged in 1971 with a degree in History of Art. James is also a biographer and has written on Turner, Faraday, Gainsborough, and Constable.

Visit James' website here.

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