Plant families can be confusing – who would have thought that wallflowers and cabbages were both in the Brassica family, or that buttercups and clematis are close cousins in the Ranunculus family. However, there is at least one plant family where the familial resemblance is hard to miss.
The Umbellifer family couldn’t be better named (though see below regarding its renaming) as the flower heads really do resemble umbrellas.
Each inflorescence has multiple rays emanating from the same point on the stem, each ending in a cluster of flowers. This gives each flower head a distinctive dome of little florets, a common sight in woodlands and hedgerows with the most ubiquitous umbellifer, the Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris).
Delicious or deadly?
Something I have always found intriguing in this family is that it contains some of our most delicious, and most deadly, plants. You could make a satisfying meal out of the edible members; carrot, celery, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnip. We eat the leaves, roots, seeds, stems and even (in the case of Dill) the pollen of umbellifers.
However, forager beware! Very similar are the wild but deadly poisonous umbellifers, Hemlock, Fool’s Parsley and Water Dropwort, whose names yet again give an indication of their habit. Many plants in this family, such as Giant Hogweed can also cause photosensitive reactions, the sap on the skin in sunlight causing blisters.
However, food and poison aside, many umbellifers make fantastic garden plants. The large flowerheads, combined with delicate, finely cut foliage, can suit a variety of situations. Shorter Orlaya grandiflora thrive in sunshine and are best suited to the front of a border. The densely packed fresh green buds of Ammi majus earn a place in the cut flower garden, making a lovely foil to other flowers in naturalistic bouquets.
And for a true statement plant, take a leaf out of Kew’s new long borders, with their billowing clouds of Selinum wallichianum framing the foreground plants.
Not just white
If you want a change from white flowers, parsnips in their second year send up huge flower stalks with yellow flowers, and on a hot still day, they give off the delectable scent of honey roast parsnip. Less obviously umbelliferous are the Astrantia, whose flowers go from pale pink to deep crimson. It’s not just the flowers that add colour to a garden. Anthriscus ‘Raven’s Wing’ is an ornamental form of Cow Parsley with deep purple leaves, showing off the white flowers. Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) can flaunt its feathery foliage in both the herb garden and the herbaceous border.
If you want architectural over feathery then go for Ferula communis the Giant Fennel, whose stout stems with almost globular yellow flowers can get up to 2m.
Not quite such a giant is Angelica, which also has the advantage of edibility; the traditional recipe of crystallised Angelica requires the stems to be harvested before flowering.
All of the Umbellifers are very attractive to pollinating insects such as hoverflies, who stop to sup nectar before looking for a spot near the aphids to lay eggs – making them excellent companion plants to a vegetable garden. Many are annuals or biennials and will self seed prolifically if you let them, especially in the bare soils of a vegetable patch so deadheading will save you a lot of future weeding.
Disappointingly for those who like the nominative descriptiveness of this family, plant taxonomists have decided to rain on our parade and stripped the Umbellifers of their name. The family is now correctly known as the Apiaceae, presumably due to its attraction to bees and while this may keep the taxonomists happy, in my opinion it does little to personify this distinctive group of plants. But when their backs are turned, you know which name I will be using!