#25 Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley


Cow parsley or Anthriscus sylvestris, aka wild cheveril, is closely related to wild carrots and is often confused with Queen Anne’s lace; both have “soft feathery foliage” and “flat heads of tiny white flowers” (Hogan 161), though Queen Anne’s Lace is distinguished by its carroty smell and a single purple flower in the center. (Since “Queen Anne’s Lace” never appears in Woolf’s writing, it is not clear if she distinguished between the two flowers.) Both look very much like hemlock which, as Socrates had cause to know, is fatally poisonous.[1]  This may be why, according to Wikipedia, cow parsley like hawthorn or may is often called “Mother-die” in the UK.

“Cow parsley” appears six times in Woolf’s writing, all clustered in the early 1920’s except for biographical reminiscences which suggest the source of her imagistic associations.  In her autobiographical meditation, A Sketch of the Past,” (1939) she remarks that her older stepsister Stella, who died soon after her marriage at the age of twenty-eight, was the moon to her mother’s sun (MOB 96). She had a vague, imperfect beauty that always reminded Woolf of “of those large white flowers –elder blossom, cow parsley, that one sees in the fields in June” (MOB 97).  This identification was partially because Stella’s nickname “Old Cow” chimed with “cow parsley,” but other visual analogues -- “a white faint moon in a blue sky” or “those large white roses that have many petals and are semi-transparent” (MOB 97) -- suggest that the lacey translucence, globular plenitude, and suspended delicacy of the flowers were key attributes.

Edler Flower     https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=173026&picture=elderflower
Woolf’s three references to cow parsley in her fiction carry similar associations with lost youth and summer lassitude.  In “A Woman’s College from the Outside”(1920) the flowers are introduced as part of the romantic ambiance of university life, connecting the flowering spheres with the moon: “The feathery white moon never let the sky grow dark; all night the chestnut blossoms were white in the green; dim was the cow parsley in the meadow” (CSF 145).  The same passage is repeated verbatim two years later in Jacob’s Room in describing the purlieus of Trinity College and Neville’s Court (JR 37). In Mrs. Dalloway (1925) it is Richard Dalloway who has a daylight but still soporific vision of rural relaxation: “Haymakers, who had pitched beneath hedges to sleep away the morning toil, parted curtains of green blades; moved trembling globes of cow parsley to see the sky; the blue, the steadfast, the blazing summer sky” (MD 110).  The soft, snowy, roundness of Stella, who briefly stepped in to be Virginia’s mother after their mother’s death, resonates through all these ghostly apparitions.

Another mention of cow parsley in a 1922 piece, “A Letter to a Lady in Paraguay,” adds a more comic, slightly sardonic twist to these dreaming visions. Reviewing a life of Mrs. Florence Barclay, a writer of romances including The Rosary -- according to Wikipedia “a story of undying love” which was named the best-selling book of 1910 in the US -- Woolf creates a hilariously fanciful account of a woman whose creativity was grotesquely productive. Calling Barclay “a gigantic humbug and at the same time a woman of genius,” she devastatingly remarks, “The brain was left out but the driving power remained” (E6 392).  After describing the world-wide distribution of The Rosary as a plague of purple pumpkins and admitting that she has not read “a single page of any one of her books,” Woolf characterizes Barclay’s talent as unconscious and natural: “the genius which creates the cabbage and the dandelion and smothers all the hedgerows with foaming cow’s parsley in June” (E6 393).  Here paired with cabbages which are often deployed comically in Woolf’s writing, the cow parsley seems to reflect some of Stella’s simple mindedness, “her gentle impassivity about books and learning” (MOB 97).

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1] Information on distinguishing various species from hemlock can be found at: https://dengarden.com/gardening/How-to-Identify-Queen-Annes-Lace-Wild-Carrot

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...