For the love of umbellifers

I am having a love affair with umbelliferous plants. Poppies, daisies and umbellifers. It is the simplicity of form, I think, that appeals to me. And my favourite of these are the umbellifers for their ability to seemingly dance lightly in the space above other weightier plants.

There is a scarily technical, botanical description of what umbelliferous plants are on Wikipedia.  They are mostly herbs – annuals, biennials or perennial, often aromatic. Typically, they have long stems often with very light, feathery foliage (though not always) and the flower heads are held above in flattish or gently mounded formation of a collection of lacy umbels. The flowers are much valued for their contribution to the garden eco-system because they attract beneficial insects. Many set seed very freely and will provide a source of food for seed-eating birds in autumn and winter.

Orlaya with blue cynoglossum at the New Plymouth cemetery

Carrots are umbellifers, as are parsley, coriander, fennel and angelica, amongst many others. The common ornamental ones include the pretty Orlaya grandiflora in flower here now (it cuts well, I have just found, and combines prettily with pastel roses in a vase) and Ammi majus.

I first started noticing the use of umbellifers in English gardens back in 2009 and predicted then that they would become a fashion flower. I can report that they have maintained their popularity in England but have yet to become a hot ticket item in New Zealand, except for the orlaya and ammi.

As seen at RHS Wisley – my lily border does not have a water feature

My new long border of auratum lilies is destined to become my nod to a garden of white umbellifers. At this stage, I am still hoeing off germinating weeds to get it as weed-free as possible before I introduce plants which I expect to seed down season after season. I will use the pretty and wayward Orlaya grandiflora with coriander for the lower growing layer, Ammi majus and maybe  carrot for the middle height and I am still debating about the tallest layer.  Will angelica be too strong a grower, I wonder? The edible angelica. I don’t want plants that will choke out the auratum lilies that are the main stars of the border.

What is referred to as ‘cow parsley’ (botanically Anthriscus sylvestris) is a common wildflower in the UK, often seen on roadsides. So too is Queen Anne’s Lace or Daucus carota, commonly referred to as wild carrot (the version we grow to eat is a form of the same thing – D. carota ssp sativus). The one to fear that comes with frankly alarming warnings is the giant hogweed – Heracleum mantegazzianum. It is a common garden escape in the UK and is apparently in New Zealand though I can’t say I have ever seen it here. The problem lies in the sap which can harm the skin by making it extremely sensitive to sunlight, causing blistering, for long periods after contact – stretching out to years, even. Don’t be tempted by giant hogweed.

Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’ at Beth Chatto’s garden where I thought to photograph the plant label as well as the pretty, airy, dancing pink flower heads

Not all umbellifers are white. Despite it being a roadside weed where we live, I have planted some wild fennel in my new summer borders. I love the way it is so tall and graceful, silhouetted against the summer sky.

Purple flowers from purple carrots at Parham House

We were very taken by the purple carrot flowers we saw in the cutting gardens at Parham House. So taken with it that I looked it up. The heritage purple carrots that have been reintroduced to the seed range (carrots did not start off orange) are the ones that produce the purple flowers.

Angelica gigas – as popular with wasps as bees

Angelica gigas is another purple flowered umbellifer, in this case a biennial which bees adore.

I have just planted a single plant of the yellow achillea, photographed here at Parham House

I had thought, based on flower form and habit, that achilleas were members of the umbellifer family. Botanically, they are not (as far as I can see) but in practical terms, they fulfil a similar garden role. Now that I have a hot, sunny, newly cultivated area, I am trying again with coloured achillea. I find them charming but they are not plants to co-exist in borders where they get overshadowed or lose all day sun.

Common fennel can look wonderful against the summer and autumn skies

7 thoughts on “For the love of umbellifers

  1. exploringcolour

    I love umbellifers so your post is a treat! I can throw a little light on the giant hogweed. My husband removed some from a client’s garden in Christchurch years ago (pre-earthquake) and we have seen it growing at Tahakopa on the edge of a field near the road. Tahakopa is in the Catlins, Clutha District but very close to the boundary with Southland.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh that is interesting. So a weed more commonly seen in the South Island rather than our neck of the woods here on the west coast of the North Island. And presumably one that likes the summer dry.

      1. exploringcolour

        I wouldn’t know about that Abbie. The Catlins is generally wet (rainforest area) but can get dry in summer for sure. But we could easily grow blue meconopsis there without any special care as it was generally a cool, damp climate.

  2. Dale Lethbridge

    Love umbellifers also. A memory of giant hogweed in a well known garden in Kiokio where the owner pledged never to let the seed mature. It was spectacular beside a stone arch bridge. I remember having some seed in my pocket in England once but my conscience prevailed and i disposed of it before getting on the plane.

  3. tonytomeo

    Queen Anne’s lace really is quite old fashioned. I wish more people would grow it. It is easier and less demanding than baby’s breath (or at least it is here). Poison hemlock is not as pretty, and it smells funny. The flowers of elderberry are supposed to be pretty as cut flowers like the umbeiliferous flowers. I suppose it looks similar, although not really related, but again, it smells sort of funny. Besides, I do not want to give up berries for a few cut flowers.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It appears that anything growing wild and free and looking vaguely carrot-y in flower carries the common name of Queen Anne’s Lace these days – a good example of where common names can mislead people. Elderberries grow freely in the cooler south but are rarely seen here.

Comments are closed.