Umbellifers are aromatic plants with umbrella-shaped flowers.
Commonly referred to as the carrot, celery, or parsley family, Umbelliferae (or Apiaceae) plants are one of the largest families of flowering plants. Many of them are edible, and some of them can kill you. Edible or deadly, it is the flowers that make umbellifers easy to recognize.
Umbellifer flowers are called umbels. Umbels are clusters of simple or compound flowers that grow from a central point. The overall flower arrangement can be flat-topped or nearly spherical.
In addition to the flowers, umbellifers tend to share other characteristics. These include hollow, ribbed stems, divided leaves, long, sheathed petioles (leaf stems), and two-sided, flat seeds. There are exceptions.
Umbellifer plants: the bad guys
While all plants use a variety of chemicals in photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth, umbellifers produce another set of chemicals that can be aromatic (good) or toxic (bad). These chemicals are believed to be used by the plants as defense mechanisms. Here, in North America, we have two dangerous forms of umbellifer: poisonous hemlock and water hemlock.
Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) is easy to identify, once you know what to look for. It has leaves that look like parsley, seeds that look like anise, and a root that looks like a parsnip. The telltale sign is purple or reddish young stems and older stems splotched or streaked with red or purple, usually on the lower half of the stem. This plant can kill you the same way it killed Socrates.
Water hemlock (Cicuta spp.) can also be fatal. In fact, water hemlock is the most poisonous plant in North America. According to the U.S. Forest service, “The leaflets of Cicuta can be distinguished from similar, non-toxic species in the parsley family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) by having veins that fork at their tips, with one branch ending at the tip of the leaflet and the other in the V-shaped sinus between adjacent leaflet lobes.”
Umbellifer plants: the good guys
Umbellifers tend to be highly aromatic plants and many of them are a regular part of our diet:
Most umbellifers prefer cool weather, which makes them excellent late fall, winter, and early spring crops in the Bay Area. Planting in winter, and again in early autumn, can produce two crops a year. These seeds tend to be very tiny and should be planted 1/2-inch deep. Pests and diseases vary by species, so you will have to look up individual plants to learn more.
Benefits of umbellifers
In addition to being delicious and nutritious, umbellifers provide other benefits. Many pollinators and other beneficial insects are attracted to their flowers. Apparently, umbellifer flowers are easy to find, and they make easy landing and launching pads. Plus, they provide pollen, nectar, and a good hiding place, depending on which insect you are talking about. Many beneficial insects drink the nectar of umbellifer flowers, while their offspring, in larval form, feed on many common garden pests, including hornworms.
Which umbellifers are in your kitchen and garden?
Carrots are not just for bunnies!
Healthy, delicious, and more colorful than ever, you can grow carrots that are white, purple, red, and yellow, along with the familiar bright orange.
Carrots are related to fennel, celery, cilantro, dill, cumin, and parsley, all members of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. These plants all have umbrella-shaped flower clusters that attract many beneficial insects. Carrots are biennial plants grown primarily for their taproots (the tops and seeds are edible, too).
How carrots grow
Carrot flowers change their gender as they develop. This means that a single umbel, or flower cluster, will contain both male and female umbellets at the same time, with the older female flowers on the outer edges, with male stamens closer to the center. After fertilization is complete, the umbel starts to curl upward, creating a bird nest shape. If allowed to grow through a winter and experience vernalization, your carrot plants will produce seeds for yet another crop. Selective harvesting can make your carrot patch a perennial food source.
Why grow carrots?
True to their ancestral home of modern day Iran and Afghanistan, carrots prefer growing in sandy soil. Our Bay Area clay is probably the worst soil for growing carrots. Plus, carrots are not exactly the most expensive produce in the grocery store. So, why bother? For the same reason we are compelled to grow our own tomatoes, peas, berries, potatoes, and more ~ it tastes better, we have more control over what goes into our food, and we reduce our carbon footprint.
Carrot body & color types
Carrot varieties are categorized by both color and shape. Carrots are classified as Eastern or Western, based primarily by color. Our common orange carrots are Western, while the more colorful yellow, purple, and crimson varieties are Eastern. Both Eastern and Western color types are then divided up by shape:
The shorter, stubbier, blocky shapes perform best in shallow soil (or containers), while the longer, slender growth carrots need more depth to grow well.
How to grow carrots
Carrots take 90 to 120 days to mature, depending on the variety. Carrots prefer full sun and cooler temperatures, but they can be grown in partial shade. While our clay soil is not the best thing for carrots, our alkaline pH is. Carrots prefer a pH range of 6.3 to 6.8. Carrots do not compete well with rocks and stones, so they are better suited in our area to raised beds. Carrot seeds are really tiny and can be difficult to space properly. One way to get around this is to stir together some carrot seeds, radish seeds, and some light soil or sand. Sprinkle this mixture over the planting area. The radishes will grow far more quickly than the carrots, creating automatic succession planting. It will also create space for the carrots. Once they emerge, carrot seedlings should initially be thinned to one inch apart. As you begin to see which plants are thriving, thin again to 4 inch spacing by cutting off the plants to be removed at soil level. This avoids disturbing the roots of remaining plants. Be sure to compost or dispose of these cuttings, rather than leaving them on the soil, to avoid attracting carrot pests.
Carrot pests & diseases
Being a root vegetable, most carrot pests are underground. Vegetable weevils, root knot nematodes, wireworms, flea beetles, and root maggots can damage your crop. Alternaria leaf blight has been known to wipe out entire crops. Being underground, these pests are generally not impacted by the use of pesticides. You can see a full list of common carrot pests and diseases on the UC IPM page on carrots.
- Carrots, combined with turnips, are in the Top Ten of important global vegetable crops, with 45% being grown in China. Only 3% of the world’s carrot and turnip production is domestic.
- Unwashed carrots can be stored for several months in layers of sand, or a 50/50 mix of sand and sawdust.
- Adding manure to carrot beds can cause split taproots.
- According to Wikipedia, “The roots contain high quantities of alpha- and beta-carotene, and are a good source of vitamin K and vitamin B6, but the belief that eating carrots improves night vision is a myth put forward by the British in World War II to mislead the enemy about their military capabilities.”
- This last one just a theory of my own. The Latin name for carrots is Daucus carota sativus. Daucus carota sounds an awful lot like ‘Doc’ and ‘carrot’ to me. Switch them around and I hear, “What’s up, Doc?” Coincidence? Maybe. But, maybe not…
Give carrots a try in your yard or on your balcony and let us know what you think in the comments section!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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