Tuesday, September 20, 2011

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,' Plant-pictures.net
 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.”


  1. I once grew Selinum wallichianum but it was too delicate to handle my heavy clay and poor drainage and passed away after two years. I wish you well with it. Will you grow it from seed? It's an extraordinary beauty. And rabbits eat every Astrantia I try. So for now I'll settled for Patrinia scabiosifolia, which self-seeds easily in gravel. Bronze fennel does well and I wouldn't be without it. I still struggle with Rattlesnake Master, possibly my favorite too, but I haven't found a place where it's entirely comfortable. Last year I even added poison hemlock, which does it's thing early then needs to be cut down.

  2. I planted three rattlesnakemasters about 3 years ago in my naturalized meadow areas and they finally bloomed this summer. Well worth the wait. I've read that they will form large clumps eventually. And I second bronze fennel - it's easy and gorgeous. Have you tried wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)? Not true umbels, but they have impressively long floral displays.

  3. Eryngium yuccifolium is the only eryngium that I successfully grow in my garden, I love it. I couldn't live without my bronze fennel though, I remember an installation at the Chelsea Flower Show with young bronze fennel, purple peonies and salvia Caradonna: amazing.
    I saw selenium wallichianum in Piet Oudolf's private garden and I fell in love with it.
    Go for Umbellifers! :)

  4. That plant family is definitely evocative of an eastern forest or woodland - nice change for me to look at! Rattlesnake master - great name, and I wish we had something with "rattler" or "master" in the name.

  5. I make sure to let dill, parsley, cilantro, and fennel flower in my vegetable garden. Not only are they vital to for culinary reasons, they also attract beneficial insects--I'm sure it has made a difference to have all those tiny wasps and flies around.

  6. I'm a huge Umbellifer lover! I have a small patch of Astrantia that I planted last fall and have done wonderfully...they are far tougher than I imagined they would be...especially since they look so delicate. I have a few kinds (Abbey Road, Roma, Alba, Ruby Wedding Star of Beauty and A. maxima). They are beautiful! I just planted some Selinum this summer and so far it's performed well (although I don't expect it to do much until next year). It'll be interesting to see if mine survives, as I also have wet, heavy clay...time will tell. I'm gathering seed from the Astrantias this fall and will attempt germinating them as well...good luck with yours!

  7. James, that's great to know about the Selenium. I've heard it's tough to grow, but will give it a try. Eryngium yuccifolium has been pretty easy for me, but maybe it just likes my site more.

  8. Tami, I've grown Rattlesnake Master for several years. Mine have eventually gotten so large I divided it (very easay to divide). Unfortunately, no seedlings yet. It's been a while since I tried bronze fennel. Your encouraging me to do it again.

  9. Alberto, I've seen that picture from Chelsea. It was gorgeous. I totally forgot about it, but now I'm definitely going to plop in some bronze fennel.

  10. David, it's true, umbels are evocative of forests. Are there any desert umbels?

  11. Valhalla, I've seen pics of your fennel on your blog. Very impressive. Thomas

  12. Scott, Loved your Astrantia images from your site. I'm wondering if Portland is a more hospitable climate for them than the humid mid-Atlantic. I've not heard great things about them here, but I'm going to try some out.

  13. Thomas, This makes me think I need more umbellifers in my garden. I admire them in the wild (and always go out to cut Queen Anne's Lace from the roadside for flower arrangements), but the only members of this family in my garden are a couple of varieties of astrantia. I'll definitely make room for more umbellifers as I design new garden areas. -Jean

  14. Love Rattlesnake Master, it's so unique in form and texture. Another good one is Zizia species (Golden Alexanders). Flower early, bright yellow, drought tolerant. In the fall the foliage turns bright magenta to maroon. Nice in masses, quite sturdy.


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