Humble Umbels

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I love flowers like these that are composed of hundreds of individual florets held in flattened cloud-like discs. Their intricate structures always reward closer inspection. Insects like them too and they are some of the best flowers for attracting hoverflies, bees and other insect allies in the summer.

Strictly, only two of the plants pictured are umbels – the dill and the wild carrot – as only they have flowers with pedicels (stalks) radiating from a single point on the stem, like an umbrella. The yarrow and elderflower have flat-headed corymbs – umbelish at first glance, but distinguished by their branched suporting structure.

Note: Click on any of the images below to see an enlarged image…

Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) is, as the name suggsts, the wild relative of the familiar vegetable. This native biennial is common in hedgerows and course meadows, especially along the South Downs around here, where it grows somewhat diminuitively. In the garden, however, it forms a large clump in one season, almost a metre wide and tall in good soil, and covered with what seems like a hundred flower heads that open in succession throughout the summer. The individual umbels are, to my eye, very beautiful. Some people may be put off by the slightly off-white colouration of older heads, but the young ones open with a pink blush to their geometric buds. The leafy bracts surrounding the flower heads create a dramatic green crown, enhancing the scroll like unfurling process as the entire head slow-motion-explodes over many days, like sea anemones dojing Thi-Chi, until they are fully reflexed. Brilliant!

Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)  The elder is  a common native hedgerow shrub. Well known uses of its flowers are in cordial and elderflower champagne, but less familiar is its use as a folk medicine, where it execells in treating fevers. The flowers have a sickly sweet scent of musty honey, and when in full flower turn the entire shrub white and weigh down the branches with their heavy racemes . As the flowers go over the tiny petals fall, snow like, creating flurries and carpets beneath. The berries follow, and provide food for birds, but to my palet they are insipid, but a good addition to jams and sauces. As a garden plant many people would choose the cultivars with golden or black foliage, and I have seen these looking beautiful, but where there is space the plain native seems more vigorous and develops a lovely waterfall effect with its weighed down branches.

Dill Weed (Anethum graveolens) Dill is a familiar cullinary herb, but unlike fennel, less often grown as an ornamental. This is a shame, as it has the same simple cultural requirements as fennel and has stems and foliage of similar structure, but with a different range of tones including pale leaf bracts and red hues at nodes. The umbels, however, are a starburst of soft acid green florets, highly attractive to ichneumen wasps and other beneficial insects which hover over them in late summer. As cut flowers they provide interesting form, and their colour harmonises well with many other flowers. Also, they are edible.

Garden yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Cerise Queen’) Wild yarrow is a common and familiar weed of lawns and wild flower in grass and meadows. Its flowers are usually white, but even the wild ones can vary from parchment to pale pink. The garden cultivars come in many arty shades – some more visually digestible than others. Cerise Queen is a fine variety – a beautiful dark brick red, which contrasts with its grey-green thousand-leaf foliage. The individual flowers within the head have a strange asymmetry, some petals being noticibly larger than others.  Some people find it difficult to grow. For some it languishes and disappears over winter (probably slugs). For others it spreads too widely and rampantly from its underground rhizome becomming invasive. Mine is confined by a fence and a path which seems to keep it in check. Like the other ‘umbels’ here, yarrow attracts a wide range of insects which feed on its nectar and pollen. Hoverflies seem particulalry fond of it.


Sweet Cicely

Sweet Cicely, (Myrrhis odorata) is a wonderful but underrated umbellifer, native to the UK and central Europe,  that thrives in part shade. It is edible, both the leaves and seeds being used to impart a sweet aniseed flavour to cooking or salads. It is particularly useful when added to stewed rhubarb or apple, as it reduces the tartness allowing less sugar to be used (especially helpful if you are on a low carb diet!). All stages of its growth are charming, with a gentle architectural quality.

Below we explore its varying charms over the summer in documentary format… Lights!, Action! (Whirr of cameras)…

Scene 1 – Resurrection: Sweet cicely emerges rather late in spring from a thick rootstock, unfurling from large knuckle-like buds with extraordinary energy – not elegant, menacing even – strong, determined, soft, silky.

Scene 2 – Foliage: The leaves are fern like, finely divided, soft and aromatic when crushed. They contrast well with large leaved plants such as foxgloves, hostas, bergenias and hellebores. The young stems are pubescent with a reddish mark at the node of each branch. A mature (three-year old) plant grows to 80cm tall, and as much across.

Scene 3 – Flowers I: In May the flowers appear. Some start to open before the head has had time to fully unfurl and turn them up the right way.

Scene 4 – Flowers II: Eventually the flower heads adopt a more or less upright posture, with individual flowers arranged in circles of circles atop umbrella-spoke stems. The tiny inflorescence are lopsided with one petal longer than the others, and at this stage they are attractive to a wide range of beneficial insects including bees and hoverflies.

Scene 5 – Seeds: Seed pods rapidly form behind the pollinated flowers and grow quickly, so that mature and immature seed pods, as well as the last of the flowers appear all over the plant together for a time in June. Eventually the pods dry to a dark brown and can be picked and dried at this time. If left they seed about. The seedlings are strong and quick to take advantage of bare soil.

Conclusion: A plant with considerable garden merit and culinary value, and one I would rather not be without.