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?
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