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?
Parsnips look like white carrots, well, because they are related!
Cousin to carrots, parsley, celery, and other umbels, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are native to Eurasia and have been cultivated since ancient times. In fact, parsnips were used as a sweetener before sugar cane made its way to Europe!
Parsnips are a cool weather crop in the Bay Area and other Mediterranean climates. Parsnips can be planted in September, and then again in February, March, and April in our region. If you live in a different area, simply check with your local Cooperative Extension Office for your best planting times.
Parsnip plant description
Parsnips leaves look almost like ferns, with pinnate (branched), toothed edges (margins). Parsnips are grown as annuals, but if you let a few of them go to seed, these biennials can start spreading edible roots in many areas of your foodscape. [Once they start that process, you won’t want to eat them - they get quite woody.] Second year plants can grow 5 feet tall, but your first year parsnip will be significantly shorter, at only 18 to 24 inches. Yellow, umbrella-shaped flowers grow into tiny ‘fruits’ called schizocarps. [How’s that for a fun garden word?]
How to grow parsnips
Parsnips, like other root crops, need loose soil. This makes them well suited to raised beds and container gardening. If you are planting parsnips in the Bay Area’s heavy clay soil, you will want to break up the soil down 18 inches and dig in 3 or 4 inches of aged compost. If you don’t, you will end up with forked and otherwise deformed roots prone to disease. Parsnip seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, with a heavy dose of patience. Parsnips seeds are slow to germinate and the plants take up to 4 months to reach harvestable size, but they are worth the wait! These sweet roots lend themselves to seasonings such as ginger and nutmeg, as well as more savory dishes, such as soups and stews. Parsnips can be grown in full sun or partial shade. They prefer slightly acidic soil, so you may need to make some pH adjustments. Seedlings should be thinned to stand 3 to 6 inches apart and be sure to eliminate all competition from weeds.
Parsnips pests and diseases
I had a difficult time tracking down parsnip pests and diseases in the Bay Area. Other regions had plenty to say, but my guess is that the Bay Area is not conducive to growing parsnips commercially, so it gets less attention. Being more than a little determined, I am going to try growing them anyway!
It is my guess that, being a close cousin to carrots and parsley, parsnips will probably have many similar problems. These include armyworms, cabbage loopers, and aphids. Fusarium wilt, powdery mildew, bacterial leaf spot, and alternaria leaf blight may also occur. Other regions mention how celery fly larvae may tunnel into parsnip leaves, much like leaf miners. These pests can harm young plants, so remove infested leaves if you see them. I also found plenty of warnings about carrot flies. Carrot fly larvae are likely to attack parsnip roots, providing points of entry for canker and other fungal diseases. These pests are attracted to the smell of bruised plant tissue, so be gentle to your parsnips!
According to Wikipedia, parsnip canker is a real problem when growing this crop. Parsnip canker shows itself as orange-brown or black areas on the crown and shoulders. Also, the roots will crack. This condition is more likely to occur when seeds are planted in cold, wet ground that is too alkaline. It sounds, to me, that poor drainage is a parsnip’s worst enemy.
On the upside, many moth and butterfly larval forms use the flowers and undeveloped seeds of second year parsnips as a major food source. So, allowing a few parsnip plants to complete their lifecycle not only gives you free parsnip seeds and plants, it also adds biodiversity to your landscape and provides food for many beneficial insects!
Like many other root crops, parsnips taste sweeter after they’ve experienced a little frost. Since our ground is not likely to freeze, we don’t need to worry about getting our parsnip harvest out of the ground before it does. Other regions are not so lucky. Before you harvest your parsnips, however, be sure to wear gloves. Parsnips may be good sources of folic acid, potassium, fiber, and vitamins C and K, but they also have a powerful self-defense mechanism. Parsnip sap is toxic. If your skin is exposed to sunlight after handling parsnip leaves and stems, you are likely to get a rash. So, wear gloves.
Give these sweet root crops a try this winter and let us know what you think!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!