An umbel is an inflorescence made up of many individual flowers on stalks (pedicels) that originate from roughly the same point on the flowering stem (peduncle) giving the appearance of an umbrella. The umbellifers all share this characteristic, usually with white or yellow flowers with rounded or flattened tops, with the appearance from above of complex lacework. The British Iles is home to over 50 species, ranging widely in size and usefulness. They are more commonly referred to as the ‘carrot’ family (Apiaceae), and include a number of edible garden plants in addition to the carrot, including fennel, coriander, parsley and celery. However more unusually, the Pignut (Conopodium majus), was once commonly dug up for its edible tubers. Indeed evidence that they were collected as a wild food and possibly used in a ritual context, would appear to date back to the Bronze Age, in addition to the now nationally rare Great Pignut (Bunium bulbocastanum) (Moffett, 1991). But many of the umbellifers are far less agreeable and some considerably poisonous.....
......Many people are familiar with Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) and its poisonous sap, which when combined with sunlight causes severe blistering to skin. The red/purple spotting on the stem is a useful warning shared by other poisonous umbellifers, such as Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum). To illustrate their potency, one report of dairy cattle inadvertently consuming Rough Chervil caused severe internal haemorrhaging amongst many other symptoms, leading to their slaughter (Fejes, et al., 1985).
But it is the ubiquitous Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) that is probably the most familiar umbellifer out of the garden, adorning our country lanes and roadsides with their tall frothy inflorescences from April to June. Now in July they are brown and ageing, their flowerless umbels resembling old broken umbrellas.
I’ve seen most of these umbellifers this year, but there is one that I am unlikely to come across – a protected species, Shepherd’s- needle (Scandix pectin-veneris), listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and has its own Biodiversity Action Plan. This seems somewhat ironic as it originated as a grain contaminant from the Mediterranean establishing itself for generations as a common weed of cornfields.
So when you next spot an umbel look a bit closer, but check first for purple spots, or maybe dig for wild pignuts like our ancestors.
Fejes, J. et al. (1985) Chaerophyllum temulum [temulentum] poisoning in dairy cows. Veterinářství, 35 (2):68 -69
Moffett, L. (1991) Pignut tubers from a Bronze Age cremation at barrow hills Oxfordshire England UK and the importance of vegetable tubers in the prehistoric period. Journal of Archaeological Science, 18 (2):187 -192