Friday, 16 September 2011

umbellifers ... not so 'umble!

The plant family of umbellifers (or apiaceae) has been a real fascination this summer. They are frequently aromatic, hollow stemmed with flowers held on umbrella ribs. From the tiny pignut that flowers on our site continuously, through cow parsley of hedgerows and verges - throughout the summer, there are umbellifers offering flower and then attractive seed heads - and sometimes delicious roots or leaves.

Imagine a cup made out of frogspawn or tapioca - that is the flowering head of our native wild carrot (Daucus carota)! Delicate and attractive, its foliage carries that distinctive carrot scent making it easy to identify and it flowers late in the season.

Whilst on holiday on Colonsay (in the Scottish Inner Hebrides) wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) was in flower. Pretty pompoms of white flower held high on hollow stalks.

On our Cordwood site, giant hogweed flowers due to the extra fertility of mushroom compost. It is supposed to get its name because pigs like to eat it. You only have to hold the flower head to your nose to get the strong stench of pigs - that is the derivation of its name! It is a bit of a bruiser with 'sharp elbows' allowing it to rise above the surrounding undergrowth and then open its umbrella flower head above the competition. Late in summer it produces these chunky, mathematical seed heads.

Quite by accident this year we allowed our parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) plants to flower and seed on our allotment. The plants reached an amazing seven feet in height with a graceful open habit. Like all umbellifers, their flowers were massively attractive to invertebrates and they went on to give us the gift of these pale golden seed heads. We collected a large envelope of seed for sowing next year. It didn't surprise me to see a designer use parsnips in an award winning garden at RHS Chelsea this year. The grace and height of parsnip plants will fit perfectly into the 'praire planting' even though these will probably be biennuals rather than perennials.

And on the subject of flower show stars, a subtle star of the show at the RHS Tatton Flower Show was  French Meadow Parsley (Orlaya grandiflora). Our own culinary parsley is an umbellifer cousin. We tried to buy French Meadow Parsley at the show but stallholders were keeping their plants so that they could propagate from seed.

Their utility, beauty and attraction for invertebrates marks them out as future signature flowers of our new garden.

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