Umbellifers: Selections from my Favorite Plant Family

As an admitted plant-aholic, it is pretty easy for me to fall for a plant. I have a bad habit of seeing virtue in almost every green darling. Of all of my plant crushes, one in particular stands out: I am particularly crazed about umbels.

The plant family Apiaceae (also referred to as Umbelliferae) is a family of aromatic, hollow-stem plants most commonly known for their lacey, umbel-shaped flowers. For herb and vegetable gardeners, you are probably quite familiar with many characters in this cast: carrots, parsnips, cilantro, chervil, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, and parsley. It was the family’s usefulness for cooking that initially attracted me, but it is their striking forms ultimately seduced me.

Umbels often have low basal foliage from which mostly leafless stems arise to support striking disk-shaped flowers. From the side, the flowers look like an umbrella turned inside-out by the wind. A close look at the tiny flower clusters (umbels) is a joy in itself, as radially-symmetrical fractals reveal hundreds of sparkling blooms. Staring into an umbel, I have the same thought as I did when I gazed upon the rose window in Chatres cathedral: how can there be such exultant power in so much delicacy?

Tom Stuart-Smith's 2010 Laurent-Perrier Garden, Chelsea.  Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
Usually flowers with such intricacy lose their effect from a distance. But seeing umbels from a distance is precisely my favorite vantage point. Think about the frothy and effervescent effect of Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) tossing among a tall grass. Placed in a smaller, garden setting, few plants are as evocative of larger, wild landscapes as umbels. Their spumous blooms channel the ephemeral like few plants are capable of doing.

While I have long loved these plants, I have not gardened with them enough. Seeing Tom Stuart-Smith’s use of Cenolophium denudatum stunning 2010 Laurent-Perrier garden has convinced me of their power in designed landscapes. Stuart-Smith has the rare ability to create plantings with a dreamy, ethereal quality, but I am convinced his use of Baltic Cow Parsley gave this garden its transcendent, fairy-tale like quality.

Here are few seeds I have ordered for next year’s border. I’d love to know if any of you have gardened with them:

1. Ammi majus, White Bishop’s Weed. An annual, these showy-white flowers look like a cultivated form of Queen Anne’s Lace. 36-48” height. I plant to sow them among medium-height, ornamental grasses.

Astrantia 'Hadspen Blood,'
 2. Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood’, Crimson Astrantia. According to Sir James Edward Smith’s 1805 Exotic Botany, “the more refined admirers of nature” rate Masterworts as one of their favorites. Sir James, couldn’t agree more. ‘Hadspen Blood’ was introduced by the great British gardener Nori Pope. Few plants give a natural look quite like Masterworts. Plant them close to a path or terrace so their detail can be appreciated.

Eryngium yuccifolium, photo by Prairie Moon Nursery
3. Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master. Is there a cooler common name than that? This American native might be my favorite plant, hands down. Round, white globes emerge from strappy, yucca-like foliage. Like all members of this family, pollinators love this plant.

H. maximum, photo by Phyllis Weyland
3. Heracleum maximum, Common Parnsip. The only member of the Hogweed genus native to North America. This very tall plant has larger leaves than most umbels. Native Americans peeled and ate the young sweet leaf and flower stalks (please don’t confuse it with Water Hemlock, a deadly plant). A larval host for the Anise Swallowtail. Prairie Moon Nursery has seeds available.

4. Sellenium wallichianum, Milk Parsley. Of all the umbels, nursery owner and writer Carol Klein says Sellenium wallichianum might be her favorite. It’s easy to see why. The leaves are as nice a feature as the flowers, as billowing clumps of ferny foliage create a lacey foundation for the plant. The stems are bright red and the flowers, oh those huge, creamy blooms. E.A. Bowles, one of the great British gardeners of the 20th century, called S. wallichianum, “the queen of all umbellifers, with its almost transparent tender green-ness and the marvellously lacy pattern of its large leaves . . . the most beautiful of all fern-leaved plants.”

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