Britain’s lanes and waysides always look spectacular at this time of year with a mass of milky white flowers of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). Recently, Monty Don expressed his love of the humble cow parsley in his writing garden, revelling in its chaotic froth of flowers. To me it typifies the start of the British summer and epitomises the beauty and lushness of the British landscape and I too revel in its simple loveliness.
Anthriscus sylvestris is a member of the very diverse Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, a family more commonly known as the carrot family. This family contains about 3,000 accepted species of about 450 genera. They consist of mainly aromatic species with an umbel flower shape, hollow internodes with highly dissected compound leaves forming a spiral around the stem. The flowers are highly characteristic, the fruit produced called a schizocarp that splits into a single seeded part when ripe. However, there are many surprise members of the family with flowers very different from the typical umbel shape. These include Erygiums and Astrantias. Some species are highly poisonous such as Conium maculatum (poison hemlock), which killed the philosopher Socrates, after he was given an infusion having been condemned to death for impiety. Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), not to be confused with the native hogweed (Heracleum sphonodylium), is an invasive weed growing up to 3m in height. It is a plant to be wary of, the sap is capable of causing severe skin blistering. Conversely, other species within the very same family contain many of our favoured root vegetables and herbs including carrot, parsnip, parsley, coriander, fennel and caraway.
I visited nursery owner, Derry Watkins’s garden last week in Cold Ashton, near Bath, to attend a talk on this plant family, which she considers her favourite. Derry grows a vast range of species from this family in her own garden and she is as enthusiastic about them as the fifty people who turned up to listen to her explain their diversity and usefulness in the garden.
“This plant family is extremely varied and you see species growing in many different locations worldwide. They are useful as well as beautiful as many will self sow.”
All of the species that Derry grows in her garden are hardy albeit a couple of species. There are annuals, biennials and perennials and all of them have beautiful inflorescences. Of the annuals are the ever-popular Ammi visnaga and A. majus, with beautiful loose dome shaped white blooms, and Orlaya grandiflora, with a more delicate and refined white flower head in comparison. Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’ is a welcome contrast to the white umbels, which produces a flush a purple frilly leaves and muted pink flower heads. All of these will self sow prolifically. The annual Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is spectacular in flower and so different to the seedling plant that first emerges from the ground. It is the plant equivalent of a jagged skeleton amongst the border, its form and structure is dramatic and eye catching. It is named after Edwardian plantswoman, Miss Ellen Willmott who apparently introduced it into other people’s gardens by secretly depositing the seed when visiting.
My favourites of this family are what I consider the triffids of the umbels and include Angelica archangelica, a true beast of a plant with huge globose flowers. These are classed as hapaxanthic perennials; each year’s growth dies back to ground level every year with fresh growth the following spring. It only produces leaf growth in the first year, followed by flowers in the second year and it may well last 3 to 4 years if you cut off the flowers. However, the inflorescences are such a stunning feature, it seems a pity to cut them off and so, it is often treated as a biennial. The huge flower heads and impressive architectural form of both Angelica gigas, Peucedanum verticillare and Ferula communis look striking in any garden. They are the oddballs of the Apiaceae and F. communis looks extraordinary when it is emerging like an unfurling leafy arm from the ground in spring. If sheer impact is needed in your garden, then go for the Madeira Giant Black Parsley, Melanoselinum decipiens, another hapaxanthic perennial which is dramatic in it’s structure and size, reaching 1.5m with angelica like flowers and pinky red flushed foliage on a main trunk. It is, however, borderline hardy and so needs a sheltered frost-free well draining spot in the garden.
One umbel I am going to try to from germinate from seed this autumn is Laserpitium siler, commonly found growing in rocky gorges and slopes in central and southern Europe. This hardy perennial is much smaller than the gigantic F. communis with lacy blue-green foliage and delicate pink or white flowers reaching a height of about 90cm. It will do well planted in free draining sites particularly gravel gardens. Another that I have planted this year in my gravel garden is hapaxanthic perennial, Ligusticum lucidum. This is very similar to Laserpitium siler but has glossier green lacy foliage, white umbels and striking seed heads at 1.2m. If you are looking for delicate yellow umbels, then one species that has caught my eye recently in Derry’s garden is Heptaptera triquetra (the triangular stemmed carrot), a short lived perennial that is best cultivated from fresh seed sown in the autumn.