Peucedanum officinale (or Hog’s Fennel) is a large, conspicuous, herbaceous umbellifer. An umbellifer is a plant in the family Apiaceae where the flowers are arranged in umbels which helpfully resemble the spokes of an umbrella.
It first becomes obvious to the passer-by in March-April, flowers in July-August and seeds from September onwards. It is difficult to mistake for anything else, you see it and think ‘What on earth is that?’ or something a wee bit more colloquial.
Peucedanum officinale looking conspicuously different in the spring. (Tankerton Slopes, Whitstable)
What does it look like?
I think it looks like a frothy green sea anemone. It is a substantial plant, up to 2m tall when in flower, and creates a dumpy mound of fine foliage topped with yellow-green umbels of tiny flowers. The plants have a distinctive resiny, incense smell that carries quite a distance on the wind. This is very helpful if you are a local teenager trying to surreptitiously smoke grass in the area, as the scents are very similar. Superficial resemblance to culinary fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is dispelled close to, the plants are a different order of size and robustness (and smell). The leaves of Peucedanum are finely divided, but not as fine as fennel, they feel tougher than they look, and are not scented when crushed. The stems are smooth and solid, and the rootstock is apparently large and parsnip-like, but I have never dug one up to investigate.
Peucedanum flowers demonstrating both their form and their attractiveness to insects
Why is it called that?
The name probably comes from the Ancient Greek ‘peukadanos’ which probably means pine (peuka) and ‘dry, parched, or burnt’ (danos); although W J Hooker opts for ‘gift’ or ‘dwarf’ in different editions of The British Flora. But it is not immediately apparent, apart from the needle-thin foliage, why this would be so. It has a bundle of common names: hog’s fennel, sow’s fennel, sulphur weed, sea hog’s fennel, brimstonewort, sulphurwort, and hoarstrong or hoarstrange (probably from the German common name Haarstrang).
Peucedanum on the eastern side of Reculver, Kent.
Where does it grow?
Only in a few places in England (Faversham to Reculver, along the Kent coast; Essex and Suffolk) making it Nationally Rare. It has been suggested Ray recorded it in Shoreham, West Sussex in 1666, but it is possibly a case of misidentification, because it has not been found there for at least 300 hundred years. In Europe it is more common, and less restricted to the coast – growing in grassland up 1800m in western Siberia.
Is it a native plant?
The distribution near the coast, especially near Roman ports suggests that it may have been brought in by the Romans; though BSBI list it as a native.
Unless you have hogs to feed, or are an endangered moth it is not currently used for much. It has potential, and has been used for various remedial purposes in the past.
From Gerard’s second book of the Historie of Plants. (click image to view)
There is a sample of the root tucked away in the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew, Herbarium specimens of the plant can be admired via JStor Global Plants (sadly you need a log-in to fully appreciate their glory) or the Linnean Society (free to view).
Can I grow it?
It does appear to be possible to get hold of the seed commercially in Europe. It should be sown in the autumn and allowed to sit outside in the winter, it should then germinate in the spring. As long as the seedlings are kept relatively free of competition they should grow on well.
If you are thinking of collecting wild plant material in the UK for any purpose, please check the BSBI Code of Conduct for Guidance first
All text and images © Mercy Morris 2015 unless otherwise attributed