Heracleum mantegazzianum

One of my favourite garden plants (yes, garden plants) is cow parsley. Think of this magnified to three or four times its size, and you have the spectacular Heracleum mantegazzianum, or cartwheel flower, a giant up to 12 feet (3.6 m) tall with rough, dissected leaves 3 feet (90 cm) wide at the base, and branching stems bearing huge white umbelliferous flowers in midsummer. The plant is a biennial, but seeds all too freely, and it is as well to cut off most of the flowers before the seeds fall. (It is best to wear gloves when handling the stems, as a few people are allergic to the sap.) This heracleum, a native of North America and western Asia, strikes a note of the theatre – of comedy, not tragedy -when encountered in the wild garden, a backdrop for a children’s picnic. It is too coarse a plant for the border, and is not suitable for a small garden, unless you like to try something unusual among shrubs. It will grow in sun or shade, but needs a little moisture, and looks enchanting by a pond. Sow seeds in situ in the autumn.

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