How to grow umbellifers

Val Bourne / 25 July 2013

These airy plants with delicate flowers are at the height of fashion with their cow parsley-like flowers and strong architectural shape.

Umbellifer foliage is often deliciously lacy and sometimes the stems are attractively sheathed. There are annuals, biennials and perennials and many of this edible family have long tap roots, including the carrot and parsnip. Some have edible leaves used in cooking, as with parsley and dill, or edible stems like celery.

Umbellifers also make good plants for organic and natural gardeners because their small flowers suit the tiny mouths of the hoverfly and the green-flowered forms also attract flies. Many hoverflies lay their eggs near colonies of aphids and their parasitic larvae gobble them up. Flies make good pollinators, as do hoverflies, so both are useful.

How to plant

Umbellifers need warm temperatures to stimulate germination and this is why gardeners tip hot water on to the soil when planting parsley seeds. Early carrots are often sown into ground that has been warmed up by cloches, again to stimulate warmth.

The seeds tend to be large and easy to handle but, being tap-rooted, they resent disturbance so the best method is to plant one or two seeds into small 3-inch pots, rather than pricking them out.

Umbellifers tend to prefer well-drained soil in winter followed by summer moisture, so water the pots before sowing and then keep them on the dry side. Germination can be very poor if the soil becomes waterlogged.

Annual umbellifers

Top tip - sow Ammi seeds in late-summer and early autumn and you will produce much larger plants.

Ammi majus (The Bishop’s Flower)
Clouds of dainty white domes of starry flower held above billowing green foliage. Makes a large busy plant and good as a cut flower with dark scabious (Scabiosa puropurea) and sweet peas.

Ammi visnaga
Earlier flowering than Ammi majus and looking like a wild carrot with flowers that open to white before fading and twisting up to a green head.

Daucus carrota ‘Black Knight’
This is a dark-flowered carrot with moody mauve head of flowers, more open and rounder than the typical carrot. It will flower until late in the year and, although just available her, it has been grown on the Continent and in Scandinavia for a few years.

Orlaya grandiflora (White Lace Flower)
The spiky, large brown seeds germinate easily producing white flowers set above grey, lacy foliage. The inner florets are tiny, but surrounded by larger white petals so it’s showy. Grows best in light shade and sulks in cool summers.

Ridolfia segetum ‘Gold Spray’ (Corn Parsley)
Acid-green to golden-yellow fine fennel-like flowers. This annual weed native of the Mediterranean region is new to me, although I am growing it this year. Probably not fully hardy.

Biennials/monocarpic perennial umbellifers

Biennial/ monocarpic perennials die after flowering.

Angelica archangelica
The statuesque lime-green umbels of this giant, man-high angelica are traditionally out by by May 8 (Archangel Day). Usefully this biennial will thrive in deep shade. It sets copious amounts of seeds - so beware.

Seseli gummiferum
One for a hot spot, with grey, finely-cut foliage and white flowers. From the Crimea and the Aegean and not easy in cool gardens. When the stems are cut they leach a gummy substance.

Smyrnium perfoliatum
A spring-flowering umbellifer which can light light up dappled shade, with strong stems clothes in yellow clasping foliage below a head of yellow flowers. The big, black seeds are difficult to grow in a pot, so allow it to self-seed.

Angelica gigas
This Korean angelica is grown in fields as an aphrodisiac in Asia, but it can struggle in cool British gardens and in cool British summers. if it flowers the wine-red umbels are terrific.

Perennial umbellifers

Myrrhus odoratus (Sweet Cicely)
May-flowering umbellifer mostly for the vegetable patch. Use one leaf in stewed rhubarb and less sugar will be needed. The large black seeds can be eaten and it does self-seed.

Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Raven’s Wing’ Dark Queen Anne’s Lace
The darker form of our native cow parsley produces pink flowers in May, above dusky filigree foliage. Long-lived and it does self-seed and the dark seedlings (roughly 50%) show their dark leaves from the start.

Cenolophium denudatum (Baltic Parsley)
Widely used at the Chelsea Flower Show, with large white heads formed by lots of smaller dainty umbels. The foliage is green and ferny and this plant dries well.

Angelica hispanica
This knee-high angelica has very shiny foliage and green flowers, so it isn’t strongly architectural. However it does live for many years.

Bupleurum longifolium
A short perennial (90 cm/3ft) with bright-green oblong leaves and early-summer heads of bronze-eyed flowers surrounded by round green bracts. Self-seeds, not badly so.

Bupleurum fruticosum
One of the very few shrubby umbellifers, with olive-like foliage and lime-green umbels in August. Forming a roundel (2 m x 2m/ 6ft x 6ft).

Astrantia major (Hattie’s Pincushion)
May-flowering pincushions which belong to this family, although the umbel is compressed. Long-lived and pretty. The paler forms (such as ‘Buckland’) repeat flower and the dark-red forms peak in May, but flush in September.

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