Pignut (Conopodium majus) is a member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae). Members of the Apiaceae have flowerheads called ‘umbels’ – these are a compound flowerheads in which all of the flower stalks arise from the same point. Often the lengths of the flower stalks are so arranged that the outer stalks are longer than the inner, so that all of the flowers are level. Actually, Pignut has a compound umbel - which means that each primary flower stalk terminates in a secondary umbel on which the little white flowers are carried. The plant’s stems arise from a rounded, brown, underground tuber, which is edible for both humans and pigs. The leaves are finely divided and the lower ones are often quite flat to the ground, appearing to form a lacy ‘mat’ around the plant.
Pignut is a plant of woods and rough grasslands and, in some parts of the country, is still quite common. In the Mersey Valley it is now rare and, until quite recently, I had only seen it twice. It used to grow (would you believe?)on a patch of grass by the side of Chorlton Precinct on Barlow Moor Road, and I used to admire it, on spring mornings, as I waited for the bus to take me to work; unfortunately, it is long gone from that site. It also used to occur in Southern Cemetery – but recently that has been subjected to a brutal ‘tidying-up’ regime and is much less biodiverse that it used to be and, as a result, I have not been able to find a single Pignut plant.
I had been about to write Pignut off as extinct in the Mersey Valley – and then found two populations in the space of a few days! The first was in the grounds of Abney Hall, near Cheadle, last Friday (24th April). It was on my list of things to look for there and I spent a couple of hours searching for it. I was just about to give up, and leave, when I stumbled upon a little colony of it. The second population was in and around Barlow Wood, on the edge of Chorlton Golf Course. Hilda Broady had noted its presence there 50 years ago (1) and on my visit, last Monday (27th April), I was delighted to see it there in some abundance – probably the best population that we’ve got left.
I found my Pignut populations by theorising that the species was never a plant of the Mersey Flood Plain but occurred instead on the river terraces. Of course, in South Manchester, nearly all of the river terraces have been built on and most of that habitat is now lost. I think that it’s important to stress that Pignut was once a very common plant, for example Richard Buxton, in his Flora of 1849 (2) described it as “abundant” and Leo Grindon, in his Flora of 1859 (3) stated that it was “abundant everywhere”. Many a country child round here would have been familiar with the taste of Pignuts – perhaps well into the 20th Century. I can’t help thinking that this is the way the world will end as common species disappear, one after the other, from parish after parish - drip, drip, drip - as we busily erode that world around us.
Oh yes, and if you find any Pignuts, please don’t dig them up just to taste the tubers – not only is it illegal to dig up wild plants unless you have the permission of the land owner – but we can’t afford to lose the few that we have left!
Dave Bishop, April 2009
1. “A Study in Chorlton Meadows – Diary, Notes & Drawings of Specimens” by Hilda F. Broady, 1959 (unpublished).
2. “A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester” by Richard Buxton, Longman & Co., 1849.
3. “The Manchester Flora” by Leo H. Grindon, William White, 1859.