Not so ‘umble after all

Couldn’t help it! Some are definitely not ‘umble at all. From the extremely poisonous to the culinary it is a fascinating family. There is an umbel for most situations and in flower from spring to late summer.

If however you don’t like ‘weeds’ then maybe it is better to move on

Spring advances ………

Anthriscus sylvestris
Anthriscus sylvestris

My fondness for the humble Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, has grown over the years, the joyous rush of giddy growth, so feminine – the lacy underskirts of late April and May. As a child I disregarded it as that stuff that grew nearly taller than me in the dingy slither of wood on the edge of a Leicestershire village. I have seen it used artfully in a meadow planting with red tulips. This short lived but wilfully self seeding perennial is also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, Scab Flower and Devil’s Parsley, amongst other things!

At plant shows the selection A sylvestris Ravenswing with dark purple almost black leaves and pink tinged flowers has transformed the status of this humble weed into one of the spring must have’s. It self seeds easily, so pick the best coloured seedlings to keep it going.

Myrrhis odorata
Myrrhis odorata

Quite a few umbels are spring flowering, perhaps getting more notice because they are relatively early, and all the more welcome for that. The aniseed scented Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata, is early in putting up soft fresh green leaves with a splotch of white, a promise of the rush of full spring to come. A plant for the moister, slightly shaded part of the garden. The leaves stewed with fruit such as rhubarb and apple reduces the amount of sugar required. The large shiny black curved seeds can take over a year to germinate.

Pimpinella major Rosea
Pimpinella major Rosea

Pimpinella major Rosea is a delicate pink flowered plant, the stems rising up from quite solid rather than ferny, dark green ground hugging foliage. A native plant for moister and slightly shadier conditions.


Chaerophyllum hirsutum Roseum
Chaerophyllum hirsutum Roseum

Chaerophyllum hirsutum Roseum a native of S Europe, April/May flowering [for me], softly hairy foliage, slightly dirty pink flowers, but still attractive, the flowers are not held as high and clear of the foliage as Pimpinella. Provides good ground cover for much of the spring and summer.

Smyrnium olusatrum
Smyrnium olusatrum

Another introduction to the UK that has made it into the wild is Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum,  sunny bright golden flower heads and glossy foliage, another burst of lushness in early summer.

Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, originally from E Europe is another quiet umbel. It is one of those hedgerow delicacies which traditionally celebrates the return of spring and fresh pickings. Lightly aniseed in flavour it is a key ingredient in omelette aux fines herbes, and goes with fish. It is low growing, short lived and doesn’t reliably over winter. If you are gentle with its progeny as they germinate it will stay with you.

Originally from W Asia, Coriander, Coriandrum sativum, is another veg patch self seeding umbel that I welcome. And who can resist Dill? So quick to bolt, but a perfect pleasure sprinkled along with olive oil and crunchy salt over the first dug boiled potatoes of the year. It’s also fun sometimes to let a parsnip do its thing, they can get very big – perhaps I should add to the big hitters below.

Big hitters

Hogweed meadow
Summer meadow with Hogweed

I now have a slight affection for some Hogweeds. Heracleum sphondylium takes over the roadside verge show from Cow Parsley along with the meadow cranesbill in later summer. Altogether chunkier and not I think for the garden. Although from a plantaholic point of view, they do sometimes show a purple tinge in flower and leaf, so maybe out there is the hogweed equivalent to A sylvestris Ravenswing?

I did get a Hogweed from Bob Brown some years ago, Heracleum lehmannianum*, originally from Tajikistan. A thumping furry thing with huge cut leaves and big plates of umbels. The seeds in particular have a weird slightly indian spicy but not quite pleasant scent. I have tried repeatedly to grow H lehmanniaum from the prolifically set seed but to no avail.

One source noted that the flower painter Ehret started to feel ill when drawing the poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort in a closed room due to the unsettling scent.

Hogweeds have a v bad name as H mantegazzianum, Giant Hogweed*, [a ‘foreign invader’ introduced in 1893 from S W Asia] is banned from being grown in gardens under the Wildlife and Countryside Act ………

“Giant Hogweed contains a substance within its sap that makes the skin sensitive to ultra violet light. This can result in severe burns to the affected areas, producing swelling and severe, painful blistering. Large, watery blisters usually appear 15 to 20 hours after contact with the sap and exposure to sunlight. Damaged skin will heal very slowly, leaving residual pigmentation that can develop into Phytophotodermatitis – a type of dermatitis that flares up in sunlight for which there is no straightforward treatment.”

A ‘name forgotten’ umbel in my mother’s garden, like, but not Giant Hogweed, grows over 2m in a season – what an amazing undertaking, all the energy required to lift those great hollow stems and huge white spoked flowers up in to the air every year.

Ferula communis
Ferula communis

Another big hitter is Giant Fennel, Ferula communis from the Mediterranean [see right, orange line shows near top], it grows a huge rangy stem 2m high, finally topped out by a candelabra of relatively small yellowish umbels. Image to the left shows the same fennel in late spring. Hardy to around -10°C so needs protection in colder areas.

Most of us are familiar with Purple Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, which adds a delicious hazy smokiness as it emerges in spring, a superb foil for scarlet and purple tulips and fresh bright acid yellows of euphorbias. Later the thin stems hold panicles of yellow green flowers aloft, attracting loads of insects [umbels tend to attract flies rather than bees]. The following year you struggle with the deep tap roots searching out the unwanted seedlings healthily germinating all around.

I am not so up on my Angelica’s but another big hitter is A archangelica which can make up to 2m, variably biennial/monocarpic (flowers then dies), also A gigas. I have also grown A pachycarpa from seed which has really thick heavily varnished brightish green leaves and sold as perennial (Not! Lets say short lived perennial). There are a number of sought after purple leaved versions of the native Angelica sylvestris which make about 75cm, so neither of these last two are technically big hitters.

Summer’s quieter stars

Selinum wallichianum
Selinum wallichianum

The later summer flowering Selinum wallichianum  from the Himalayan foothills is another favourite, very delicate, in a chunky way, the white flowers supported on fine struts.


Molopospermum peloponnesiacum
Molopospermum peloponnesiacum

Molopospermum peloponnesiacum, what a big name! [late May/June] another interesting and elegant umbel with greeney/white flowers and very filigreed highly varnished foliage which dies down quite early. Despite the name it is found naturally in the Alps and Pyrenees.

A pleasant if not particularly stunning fairly localised native perennial is Seseli libanotis or Moon Carrot which I grow as much for the name as its personality, this flowers in summer around June/July.

Selinum montanum
Seseli  montanum

I also grow Seseli montanum which forms a mound of finely cut dark green leaves from which rise thin stems topped with small umbels of white flowers up to 60cm in later summer.

Seseli gummiferum from the Aegean and Crimea is totally different with fantastic silvery leaves.

I have noticed some particularly beautiful Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, around Swindon Railway Station, the flowerheads are larger than usual and the green ruffing they are cupped in seems more abundant and longer than most, perhaps they are getting extra moisture in their particular situation. I love the way the flower struts curve inwards after flowering, creating a nest of fuzzy seeds. Our native Wild Carrot is a biennial, smelling of carrot when the leaves are crushed and seed handled, but is not the original form of the carrot we cultivate for food. The Modern Herbal notes that the spindly white root is very bitter.

Meum athamanticumAnother rareish and delicately beautiful native is Spignel or Baldmoney, Meum athamanticum, the foliage is very delicately fluffy, the flower heads white and very modest. Apparently found in more northerly parts of the UK in limestone meadows, it gives a pleasantly clovery taste to cows milk.

I have grown Pignut, Conopodium majus from seed for no other reason than the name. The foliage above ground dies away quite fast, not betraying the location of the little edible tuber ‘nut’ easily. I grew mine in pots and an unidentified animal did find them and dug into the pots for the tubers. It is to be found in old unimproved meadows mingling unobtrusively with the grasses.

Another umbel grown from seed is Laserpitium siler, I am waiting for it to do something significant after 3 years.

Distinctly different
Rock Samphire, Crithmum maritimum is quite different, it grows naturally by the sea, I saw some recently on Portland Bill tucked into the cracks of the quarried cliff face and also at Leucate in SW France. The leaves are leathery and stiffened, the flowers greeney yellow, supposedly difficult to grow in a ‘garden’, the Somerset Wild Flower Collection at Carymoor has a quite magnificent specimen. It used to be a specially collected delicacy picked and pickled under licence on the Isle of Wight. [Not to be confused with Glasswort, Salicornia europaea which grows in tidal marshes and is also edible]..

Melanoselinum decipiens
Melanoselinum decipiens

Also very different is Melanoselinum decipiens or Black Parsley from Madeira [flowering May/June grown from seed]. It grows a trunk and makes up to 2m, generally shrubby in appearance, borderline hardy in the UK, Pan Global Plants in Gloucestershire has some specimens that have overwintered against a warm wall.

Mathiasella bupleuroides
Mathiasella bupleuroides

Mathiasella bupleuroides [ shown in flower in May] – a curiosity and a bit of an ‘in’ plant at the moment.

Bupleurum are another unusual umbel. I bought Bupleurum longifolium from Derry Watkins. The umbels are displayed in starred bronzy cups. It appears to be easy from seed, probably needs growing in groups to really shine.

Aciphylla aurea

And another distinct umbel ……. Aciphylla aurea, my father has tried to establish this sub alpine New Zealander who apparently likes its roots in snowmelt, a number of times in un-snowy Somerset. This one had been doing so well for the last few years, the wickedly speared rosette of golden green was looking fabulous, no more, it collapsed in July having rotted off in the middle – the lousy wet summer or something else …..?

Astrantia’s and Eryngiums are also umbellifers [subject for another time!]. Think about all the culinary umbels; Lovage with it’s hoppy/celery scent and flavour, Parsley, Parsnip, Carrot, Coriander, Florence Fennel . and ……

Not so ‘umble at all.

*Some umbels do come with a severe warning and are extremely poisonous, Conium maculatum or Hemlock and Oenanthe crocata, Hemlock Water Dropwort for example, so always, always, be sure of what you are picking if eating. Also a number can cause skin irritation to varying degrees of severity, if unsure use gloves to handle and wear long sleeved shirts.

I have grown quite a number of species and cultivars quite easily from seed, the majority of the ‘wilder’ species sown in autumn to over winter outside, an early March sowing in an unheated greenhouse has also worked well for some. Be patient, Sweet Cicely for example has taken over a year to germinate. Others I just cannot get to germinate!

Many have carroty root systems i.e. one main root which may make some hard to transplant once settled in.