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Umbellifers – from poison to beauty

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

The family of umbellifers can take us from Socrates poison to Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Did you ever imagine that Queen Anne’s Lace, sweet cicely, golden alexanders, angelica, sea holly and poison hemlock, were all members of the same botanical family? All of these belong to the large class Apiaceae which is very large, with 300 genera and between 2500-3000 species. I will not give a lengthy lecture on taxonomy, a system used by botanists, but I will give you the hierarchy. First comes the domain, followed by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  For example, humans are in the animalia kingdom and the genus Homo as in Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis.

The class of umbellifers is familiar to any of us who have seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing by the roadside, or used dill when making pickles.

The word umbellifer refers to the shape of the flower. Botanists will say that plants with a flower similar to Queen Anne’s Lace is an inflorescence, which I think is a lovely sounding word. Once you start to think of plants with similar flowers you might first enter a world of edible plants. The herb garden holds many umbellifers including parsley, caraway, cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, celery, and chervil.

Some herbs like Angelica archangelica can grow to seven feet tall. It makes quite a statement in the herb or flower garden. It bears a resemblance to giant hogweed, but it is benign and will not cause rashes or worse. It has been used medicinally in the past. It is a biennial, or may seed itself for several years.

I grew the herb lovage in an out of the way spot in my Heath garden because it easily grew to six feet tall. I didn’t use it much, but I occasionally used the leaves when I didn’t have celery

Which brings us to the vegetable garden with celery, celeriac, fennel, parsnips, and carrots, of course.

If you have any of these umbellifers in your herb or vegetable garden you know that the flowers attract many pollinators and butterflies. Once I learned that the striking yellow and green caterpillars I saw crawling on and eating my dill would eventually turn into lovely swallowtail butterflies, I planted extra parsley and dill. Still, I remain willing to sacrifice these plants because it means I have the flowers of the sky in my garden.

Sea Holly

Sea Holly

And that just about brings us to the flowers in the garden. Sea holly (Eryngium) is an umbellifer. The silvery but bright blue umbel looks quite different from the airy and flat Queen Anne’s Lace blossom. The sea holly umbel more resembles the center of a cone flower with tiny flowers in the center surrounded by thistle-like bracts.

I bought a sea holly for my Heath garden several years ago and I’ve forgotten the particular species. There are a couple of species of sea holly that are hardy in our region.

Eryngium Big Blue will grow to nearly three feet with a two foot spread. Eryngium yuccifolium has yucca-like foliage with small, pale greenish-white umbels and no bracts. Both of these are very hardy and do well in ordinary soil that drains well. It is an ideal plant for the dry garden.

There is another sea holly nicknamed Miss Willmott’s Ghost. This plant is quite famous in England where the wealthy Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934) lived and gardened. She was a passionate gardener and it has been said that she had 200 gardeners working in her Warley Place gardens.

One of her favorite plants was Erynium giganteum and it was well known that she often scattered the seeds of this plant in the gardens that she visited. I have heard different stories about her habit of spreading the seed of this favorite plant. Some say she did it because she loved it so much she wanted to share it with all her friends. Others say she did it to irritate people. Either way, the big pale holly became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost. She became more and more eccentric as she lived, and ultimately died a pauper.

Some of the umbellifers are so similar in appearance that they can be mistaken for a poisonous member of the family. A couple of years ago there was a great concern about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which grows to ten feet with a flower that resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. This is a phototoxic plant. When the sap gets on your skin and then is exposed to sunlight the damage it causes looks like a bad burn and is very painful.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) was used on purpose in 399 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Socrates who had been convicted of corrupting Athenian youth. Plato was with Socrates when he took the deadly drink and watched him stroll around the room until he felt his strength waning. He lay down and was soon dead.

Those who read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley may remember that the epic story of a farming family also includes murder by poison hemlock.

Water hemock (Cicuta) is considered the most deadly poisonous plant in the United States. The deaths that occur are because the roots are mistaken for edible vegetables.  It takes hardly more than a bite before it attacks the nervous system causing vomiting and seizures.

My advice is to stick to parsley and parsnips in the kitchen, and sea holly in the garden.

Between the Rows   September 24, 2016

2 comments to Umbellifers – from poison to beauty

  • Yes, you have to be careful with these plants! I love Sea Holly. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have 200 gardeners to help tend the garden? Or maybe that, in itself, would be quite stressful. 😉

  • Pat

    Beth – I agree – managing 200 gardeners would be quite stressful. Somebody would always be messing up – and I think that might be why Miss Willmott went a little crazy.

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