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Cornucopia - Under My Umbellifer

Under My Umbellifer
Marion Jay

In recent years, one plant family has taken centre stage in Chelsea show gardens and domestic plots alike. Umbellifers (named after the Latin for parasol: umbella) are the hot ticket of the moment and show no sign of losing their popularity. Formally known as the Apiaceae family, umbellifers include Astrantia, Eryngium, Angelica, Ammi and Selinum. There are also many edible types, not surprising since it’s often commonly called the carrot family.

The increasing interest in umbellifers is partly due to the trend towards naturalistic gardening, as many blend well with grasses and help bring an airy, transparent look to the border. The more ethereal kinds, such as the dark-leaved Anthriscus 'Ravenswing' and lace-flowered annuals Ammi majus and Orlaya grandiflora, can also be used to create a soft, romantic effect. Other more sturdy characters, like Angelica gigas, rudely punctuate plantings with their solid, beetroot-red protruberances.

Some of the edible umbellifers are increasingly being used ornamentally, as seen at Chelsea, where Cleve West and other top designers have incorporated flowering parsnips into their show gardens in recent years. I tried threading dill amongst Perovskia atriplicifolia this year to great effect, and I often use bronze fennel amongst hot-coloured perennials.

The umbels themselves comprise a cluster of individual flowers which form a flat topped inflorescence, ideal for pollinating insects to use as a landing pad. Each flower has five petals, sepals and stamens. Pollination of one flower by the pollen of a different flower on the same plant is common (known as geitonogamy). Members of the Apiaceae family usually have aromatic foliage; the group contains many herbs, including parsley, coriander and cumin. Umbellifers have tap roots and hollow stems and a few, such as hemlock, contain poisonous alkaloids.

Umbellifers make good companion plants, as the structure of the flowerheads accommodates ladybirds, parasitic wasps and predatory flies perfectly; they enjoy the plant’s nectar but also prey on insect pests nearby. Many of Britain’s wildflowers belong to the family, including wild carrot, sea holly, rock samphire and the outlawed but spectacular Giant Hogweed.

In my experience, certain members of the family can make a real nuisance of themselves. I’m very fond of the silver-bracted biennial Eryngium giganteum, but it produces a plague of hundreds of tap- rooted seedlings every spring. I’ve been told that the beautiful lime-green Smyrnium perfoliatum can also yield a tide of baby plantlets, and fennel has the same propensity if left to go to seed.

The worst offender has to be Aegopodium podagraria; the dreaded ground elder to you and me. Spreading rapidly by seed and root, its reputation as one of the gardener’s worst enemies is well-earned.

During a visit to Hopley’s Nursery this summer, I spotted a very pretty umbellifer growing near the outdoor seating area. It had dark green, fennel-like foliage and small, open umbels of blush-pink flowers. Aubrey Barker, the owner, identified it as Seseli montanum and, when I couldn’t find a supplier online, kindly gave me permission to harvest a seedhead when they’ve ripened. Generally, umbellifer seed should be sown when fresh. Storing it over winter, even in the fridge, can drastically reduce the success rate for germination.

Angelica gigas seed in particular should be harvested when still dark red in colour (not the usual brown, dried seedhead), and sown immediately. Some angelicas are pesky self-sowers but A. gigas very rarely self-seeds and requires prompt attention at the right time for successful germination. Once sown, the seed-trays may be left outside, where they should germinate within weeks. Don’t discard a batch which hasn’t germinated quickly though - for those which remain dormant, the cold period over winter will sometimes trigger germination in the spring.

This year, one of the most spectacular ornamental umbellifers is flowering in my garden. It’s a biennial called Seseli gummiferum, commonly known as the Moon Carrot. A couple of feet in height and branched in structure, its large flowerheads produce ‘arms’, at the end of which are individual pompom-shaped umbels, half an inch across. John Hoyland of Pioneer Plants aptly described the branches as ‘dancing, Shiva-like’.

Another of my favourites is Astrantia 'Roma', a sterile hybrid which produces an abundance of papery, rose-pink flowers in early summer. If dead-headed in late June, it will often provide a second flush later in the season. The intense blue of Eryngium x olivieranum also always attracts comment, its stems as well as spiny bracts flushed with cobalt during the dog days of July.

In a gravel area of the garden, I’ve been growing Bupleurum longifolium, after Val Bourne recommended it in an article she wrote last year. A statuesque plant, its young coppery umbels gently fade to greenish-orange, the bracts lasting several months. I think it’s really beautiful and I hope it self-seeds.

Umbellifers come in many guises and the best of them provide our gardens with highlights throughout the growing season. Their increased popularity has brought new garden-worthy varieties to our attention. Easy to grow, elegant in stature and often drought-tolerant, they are so much more than just a humble carrot.

First published in the Hertfordshire Group Newsletter Autumn 2013
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 33.
© Copyright for this article: Marion Jay

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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