A guide to probably the trickiest plant family you can get to know
This plant family is one of the most common plant families you will encounter when foraging for food in Britain. It also provides us with some of our staple vegetables, as well as a range of culinary herbs and spices. The world’s cuisine would be far poorer without these plants.
The importance of this plant family to foragers comes from the number of poisonous species, some deadly, rather than the array of magnificent foods that are growing in all corners of the UK.
It is likely that you have eaten some of the following plants:
Carrot (Daucus carota), parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), celery (Apium graveolens), celeriac (Apium graveolens var tuberosum), dill (Anethum graveolens), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), lovage (Ligusticum scoticum), parsley (Petroselinum crispus), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), caraway (Carum spp), anise (Pimpinella anisum), and cumin.
A few of these plants grow wild here, whilst others are purely cultivated species, bred over the course of millennia (although some took only a few years of breeding to produce a vegetable fit for the plate, as is the case with the story of the wild parsnip). Cumin, like anise, needs a polytunnel to do really well here.
Thos article attempts to condense and succinctly present the important botanical questions which need answering to correctly identify the range of plants that are to be found within the large Apiacea family of umbelliferous plants.
Through what I have encountered in the wild here in Britain, the most commonly found members of the carrot family seem to be cow-parsley, hogweed, hemlock, fools parsley, ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), wild carrot, wild parsnip, wild angelica, rough chervil, hedge parsley, fennel, water-dropwort hemlock, and when near-by or at the coast, rock-samphire and alexanders are also found in profusion and often with some of the above.
The name umbellifer was given in allusion to the shape of the inflorescence found in this family. Arising on stalks which are all attached to a central point at the top of the main stem, the aggregate of umbels typically create an overall shape akin to an umbrella. This diagnostic feature applies to all members of the carrot family.
The compound umbel flowering structure is unique to the carrot family although umbelliferous plants can sometimes be confused with unrelated plants from different families displaying flowers which botanists will often describe as ‘umbel-like’.
Notably, this includes the inflorescence known as corymbs, as carried by plants such as yarrow (Asteracea), elder and Viburnum species (Caprifoliacea), amongst others. Upon close examination these plants can be seen to have flowering stalks which do not arise from the same spot on the main stem, therefore telling us they are not umbellifers.
As with many plant families, the observable identification patterns of structure and form in the carrot family continues when looking into their chemistry. Many umbellifers are pleasingly aromatic, with chemistry unique to that plant…indeed all the umbellifers mentioned on this site will reveal this trait.
Carrot family plants are often prized for their ‘top-note’ aromas present in their essential oils. When studying dill, fennel and cumin, or carrot and caraway, their aroma becomes very handy if trying to identify individual plants in a mixed group, for they look so much alike, especially when young!
When first becoming acquainted with the carrot family, it is almost inevitable that the plants will look very similar (and often almost identical), yet the differences between species will soon become apparent with a little time and effort invested. Carrot family plants are known for their outline trinagular shaped leaves. Just this information helps you begin to close in on unidentified plants in the wild.
Some of the easier specific individualities can be appreciated by merely flicking through plant identification books as you walk. However, to be completely aware of the range of subtle differences and to become sufficiently enabled to correctly identify all the British species, will, without exception, take many hours of field work and much painstaking flicking through books.
Without this work it will be nigh on impossible to be able to positively identify one edible from another poison and much will be excluded from your larder and medicine chest because of it.
Saying this, getting to know the main edibles and medicinals in this family won’t take you long, if you go out foraging regularly and are willing to put the hours in and do the basics of closely observing all features. You get out what you put in. So start sowing the seeds of your knowledge now!
Plants you will find in abundance in one location and habitat will often not be seen in another. For example, sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) can be abundant in some areas of northern England, yet completely absent from most parts of the south. Certain plants love watery habitats and are absent on drier chalk lands. However, some of the family are ubiquitous throughout Britain, and these are the ones you may recognise instantly.
Major factors to bear in mind about plants within the carrot family, without studying the individual plants
-The habitat (including soil type and pH) is often critical.
-Type of soil. Are you on chalky land or limestone soils, or acidic soils?
-Are you on free-draining land or wet land?
-Are you by waterways?
-The flowering period ( i.e, time of year the plant in question will be in flower). This is important as the flowering period will often be different for similar looking plants under question.
-Habit and form….There are some obvious characteristics to note when initially studying the individual plants. These include:
-Does the plant grow high or lie low to the ground?
-Colour of flowers. Are they yellow, green-yellow or white,
-Does the plant have finely divided leaves or broad leaves.
-How many times divided (pinnate) are the leaves (1, 2 ,3 or 4)?
-How many individual umbels are there in the inflorescence?
-How many rays are there? (a ray is the individual flower stalk on an individual umbel)
-Are the flower petals on the outside of individual umbels of an equal or unequal length?
-Are there bracts (small thin green growths) present under the compound umbel?
-Are there bracteoles present under the individual umbels?
-Does the plant have hairy or hairless leaves?
-Does the plant have hairy stems or smooth stems?
-Are the flowering stems solid or hollow?
-Are the petioles solid or hollow?
-What sort of shape is the petiole?
-Are there spots or blotches on the stems?
-Is there any aroma from leaves, stem, flowers, or seeds?
-What is the shape and size of seed?
-What other seed features are present or notable?
Unless these questions get answers, to which you then add the other identifiable information previously gleaned, then you are unlikely to ever find or try the freshness and delicate succulence of what I call ‘hedgerow asparagus’-also known as hogweed shoots, or come to that, the very fragrant, cardamon-like aromatic seeds of the same plant (Heracleum sphondylium ), and you will maybe never know the delectable and very mildly aniseed-come-carrot flavour held in cow parsley stems (Anthriscus sylvestris).
Without study you might not be confident enough to find, identify, and savour, the delights that come from blanched and buttered alexanders stems (Smyrnium olusatrum), or lightly steamed ground elser (Aegopodium podagraria), pickled rock-samphire (Crithmum maritimum), baked pignut (Conopodium majus), or the sweetness held in sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata). Oh dear, what a loss!
The array of edible and medicinal plants offered to us by the carrot family does not hide the fact however, that due to the number of their poisonous plant relatives, this is probably one of the most risky plant families to forage from. Its what I call on my forage walks the most exciting family for foragers to know…because you literally are taking your life in your hands with this lot.
I speak from personal experience here having accidentally found myself eating poison hemlock and having naively sampled the parsley-like flavour of deadly water hemlock dropwort!
These two deadly poisonous species (Conium maculatum and Oenanthe crocata) look dis-similar when compared to each other, but look very similar to a number of other edible umbellifers which is why extreme caution should always be exercised. My series of bite size foraging videos should help you get acquainted.
By knowing the time of year that individual umbellifer species flower, you will be greatly assisted in deciding on what you are looking at when coming across similar looking white flowered umbelliferous plants on a walk.
For example, the poison hemlock tends to flower in the time of year after its lookalike cow parsley/wild chervil has pretty much finished flowering. Aside from thier different flowering periods, poison hemlock usually grows much taller (more than 2m is common) than cow parsley, and has smaller compound umbels, smaller indivdual flowers, as well as looking quite different at close quarters, with its blood spattered red-purple spotting on the petioles and flowering stems.
Cow parsley is the first, and easily the most dominant white-flowering species on country lanes and up and down the land. It comes into full on flowering in April and early May. It is true that while the last flushing of cow parsley overlaps the early hemlock show, the two plants cannot easily be misidentified when actually looking at them close up.
The leaves of hemlock and cow parsley are very similar; both are fern-like in shape and appearance, being botanically classed as 3-4 times pinnate. However, the serrations on the edges and their slightly different green colours become noticeable after a short while being with them. As do the differences in size. When observing the two species continually over time in the same place, their distinct differences in height also reveal who is who.
Hemlock has smooth stems. This is very important to know and needs your engagement with the plant to know for sure. Just looking from a standing start will often not confirm this. Contrast the hairless, smooth hemlock stems to the hairy cow parsley stems. Cow parsley does not have the red spots on petioles and stems, although purple coloured stems are not uncommon.
Cow parsley typically has characteristic ‘u’ shaped petioles, when looking at a cross section, with a central groove running down the petiole, whereas hemlock has a flatenned cylindrical shape, and is hollow. Cow parsley has noticeably ridged and hollow flowering stems, hemlock has mere fine striations on its more wavy looking flowering stem. For me, especially before flowering, it was always the spots and absence of hairs that most helps in deciding between the poison or the edible.
Arguably the most noticeable of our large, white flowering, hedgerow umbellifers can also be seen growing in amongst the two subjects under discussion. Hogweed, possibly are third most common umbellifer, is first spotted in bloom from around the beginning of May in southern parts of Britain.
Foragers need to be careful not to confuse it with the much larger and extremely photo-toxic relative the ‘giant hogweed’ which can dwarf its junior relative and flower up to heights of 5metres!) Thankfully for you my short video can help you get acquainted
What initially and easily distinguishes this plant from hemlock and cow parsley are the leaves. Once again they are pinnate, as indeed are most umbellifers. Hogweed’s leaves are different by being broad and only 1-2 times pinnate with large, lobed, leaf segments and a terminal leaflet always with three lobes. In other words, they are completely different!
Hogweed also carries distinct petals which are noticeably unequal in length on the outer white flowers in the umbels. Flowering structure once again contains many pointers to correct identification, if other aspects have failed yet to differentiate.
For example, on the stems of umbellifer plants, at the point where all of the compound umbel flower structures originate, can sometimes be found small, green, leaf-like bracts. On wild carrot, shown at the top of the article, there are very distinctive branched bracts.
The presence or absence of these will further help determine which plant you have found as will the presence or absence of bracteoles, similar yet often smaller structures arising from the unified base of the individual umbels. Aside from the shape of the resultant seed, other identification characteristics, such as the number of stamens, will probably require a magnifying hand lens.
This then is just the beginning of my guide to the umbellifers…more coming soon! Follow us here and on twitter and facebook!