Honewort, Cryptotaenia canadensis

by cazort

Honewort, or Cryptotaenia canadensis, is a perennial native to Eastern north America which is easy to grow and can be used as an herb, vegetable, and spice.

Honewort, scientific name Cryptotaenia canadensis, is a perennial herb native to Eastern North America. It is in the carrot family, making it a relative of common plants like parsley, cilantro, and celery.

It is very easy to grow and tolerates a wide range of conditions. It is also somewhat unusual in being a shade-tolerant perennial herb that is useful as a food plant. All parts of the plant are edible and parts of the plant can be harvested at virtually all times of year.

This herb is an excellent option if you want to practice sustainable permaculture. It can be grown under the shade of sun-loving crops, requires little care, and contributes more to the surrounding ecosystem than non-native crops.

Natural Habitat - Widespread in Forests and Suburbs

Especially common in woodlands along streams, but found in a wide variety of forest and edge habitats, tending to prefer wetter habitats.

Honewort is abundant in wooded areas along streams, forest edges, and shady spots in yards and suburban areas.  It can be found in high-quality, undisturbed habitats, as well as disturbed areas around humans.

Look for it in silty areas of forested floodplains, or coming up in hedges.

First-year Honewort Plants
First-year Honewort Plants
Photo by Alex Zorach
Honewort with Seeds
Honewort with Seeds
Photo by Alex Zorach
Fritzflohrreynolds, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Fritzflohrreynolds, Wikimedia, CC BY-...

Growing Requirements: Highly Adaptable

Honewort is easy to grow, ideally liking part shade and moist conditions, but tolerating a wide range of conditions.

Honewort ideally prefers part shade and moist conditions, and a loamy soil rich in organic matter.  However, I've found it to be a highly adaptable plant, and I have been able to grow it in a wide range of soils and sun exposures.  It is among the most shade-tolerant of herbs, and it is also tolerant of soggy soils and compacted soils, as well as disturbed areas with nutrient-poor soils.  With sufficient moisture and good soil, it can also be grown in sunnier exposures.

In my herb garden, I like to plant it in the back of flower beds, up against the house, behind other, sun-loving herbs.  It does well in borders and near buildings.

A Relative of Mitsuba, "Japanese Parsley"

Honewort tastes very similar to mitsuba, as it is very closely related. It can be used interchangeably; I recommend planting honewort in its place if you are located in North America.

Honewort is a very close relative of Mitsuba, also called Japanese Parsley.  You can use the plants interchangeably.  Mitsuba's scientific name is Cryptotaenia japonica, placing it in the same genus as honewort.  Some taxonomists even consider them different varieties of the same species.

In North America, I recommend planting honewort and not planting mitsuba, because mitsuba can become invasive, whereas honewort is already part of the ecosystems here.

Identification: I have not been able to find a reliable botanical key or source for reliable ways to distinguish between the two species, but in my experience, one easy-to-see characteristic is to count the number of flowers per umbel.  Honewort usually has far more flowers per umbel, often 5-9 or sometimes more, whereas Mitsuba often only has 3-5.  Also the petals on Mitsuba are usually bolder looking, whereas the petals of Honewort are more likely to curl at the ends.  The flowers look smalle, more lace-like, and more abundant on honewort.  Examples: mitsuba flowers vs honewort flowers.  The leaf shape is also different but this characteristic is harder to use because honewort is so highly variable in leaf shape.  One feature I've noticed is that mitsuba tends to have wider, stubbier leaves higher up on the plant, whereas leaves higher up on honewort tend to be more narrow or slender.  The leaf margins on honewort also tend to look more irregularly toothed than on mitsuba.

This variety of Mitsuba has purple stems and purplish leaves; many are all-green though and hard to distinguish from honewort. In North America, I recommend only planting honewort because it is native.
Mitsuba, Cryptotaenia japonica, Purple-leafed variety
Mitsuba, Cryptotaenia japonica, Purple-leafed variety
Photo by Alex Zorach

Culinary Uses

All parts of this plant are edible. I find the leaves the most useful part, the seeds can be used as a spice, and the root can be cooked and eaten. Be careful with ID though as there are poisonous plants in the same family.

The leaves of honewort are the part of the plant that I like to use most.  They are broad and thin, especially when grown in shade, and tend to stay relatively tender, even later in the growing season when many plants are too tough to eat.  Unlike many carrot-family herbs, honewort leaves do not become unpalatably bitter when the plant blooms.  But, being a perennial, if you grow this plant, you will also typically have access to both first-year plants, which do not bloom, and older plants.

The flavor is a little like parsley, celery, and cilantro.  I find it often tastes naturally slightly sweet, and has a fresh, light taste.

You can also use the seeds as a spice.

Be very careful with plant ID if obtaining this plant from the wild.  Plants in this family can be hard to identify, and there are many deadly poisonous plants in the same family.

Ecology & Faunal Relationships

The tiny flowers of this plant attract a variety of small bees and flies, and even some beetles.  Although insects usually do not cause major damage to the leaves, there are leaf and flower beetles that eat this species, as well as aphids, leaf-mining fly larvae, and a few moths and butterflies, including the black swallowtail, that eat this plant as caterpillars.

The dense cover formed by thickets of this plant can be useful for some small animals.  Deer sometimes eat this plant in small quantities.

Propagation: Easy By Seed or Transplanting

Very easy to grow either by seed or by transplanting young plants.

Honewort is one of the easiest plants to propagate.  It is a prolific seeder and grows readily from seed.  The seed begins coming ripe in late August in the Mid-Atlantic region, and is usually completely ripe by mid-September.  Seeds are ripe when they have dried completely and the stalks they are on have died.  In many cases, scattering the seed in fall is enough to get this plant established.  Sow thinly because many plants will sprout, requiring some thinning.

Honewort is also very easy to transplant.  It has a taproot, but, like most carrot-family plants, the taproot is sturdy and not easily disturbed.  Because it is such a prolific seeder, you will likely find areas in the wild where there is so much of it that you can dig up a few plants without disturbing anything.  Transplanted plants readily establish themselves and start growing within a few weeks.  If you transplant the plant from deep shade to sun, or vice versa, expect the leaves to die back as the plant grows new leaves adapted to the changed lighting conditions.

First-year plants will typically not grow seed, only leaves, so if you want stalks or seed, you'll need to wait a second year.

Never transplant a native plant from the wild unless it is abundant!!!  Also, take care to not leave disturbed soil.  The best place to obtain honewort plants are from lawns and parks, on the borders of paths where people mow regularly, and the plants are likely to be killed anyway.

More Woodland Plants of Eastern North America

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The white wood aster is among the most shade tolerant of fall-blooming wildflowers native to Eastern North America. It is a versatile and robust plant, easy to cultivate.
How to identify and distinguish the wood poppy native to eastern North America, from the invasive lesser celandine, a similar plant native to Europe.
Updated: 07/27/2016, cazort
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