Umbellifer Family

The Umbellifer family includes the root vegetables carrot and parsnip, the herbs parsley, fennel, celery and dill and the decorative garden plants  eryngium and astrantia. Wild flowers include wild carrot, cow parsley, hogweed and pignut. The family name is based on the genus Apium which was first used in 50 AD to describe a celery-like plant such as Apium graveolens Wild Celery. Apium could mean ‘liked by bees’. The common name Umbellifer is from the arrangement of the flowers in a compound umbel –  a main umbel branching into many partial umbels, as in the wild carrot.

The inflorescence in this family is a compound umbel. In this diagram the primary umbel has 4 stems (known also as rays) which come from the same point and lead to 4 secondary (partial) umbels, each with 4 flowers. Under the primary umbel there may be small leaves named ‘bracts’ and under the secondary umbels there may be small leaves named  ‘bracteoles’. The number of rays, ‘bracts’ and ‘bracteoles’ may be used in identification.
Cow Parsley has 4 to 10 rays, no ‘bracts’ and several ‘bracteoles’.
Wild Carrot has  many rays and  7 to 13 ‘bracts’ and ‘bracteoles’.
Wild Carrot Daucus carota. Height 30 to 100cm.  Individual flowers have 5 petals, 5 stamens and 2 styles. Flowers from June to August. It has a single deep purple flower at its centre. Its function is unknown. The subspecies sativus is cultivated worldwide as a root crop.

Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris. Height 60 to 100cm. Flowers from April to June. Has no bracts. The stem is not spotted and  not hairy. It is the first roadside umbellifer in spring and is a very common native wild flower.

Hogweed Heracleum spondylium. Height up to 3m. It has no bracts and the  bracteoles are bristle-like. It flowers from April to November. The stem is roughly hairy. Outer petals are much larger than inner.
Pignut  Conopodium majus is a common, short (25 to 50cm) perennial with an edible tuberous root. It flowers in May and June in woods and fields. Native to Britain and Europe.

Eryngium is a genus of 250 species found worldwide. Several species are sold as ornamental garden plants in Britain. Mediterranean Sea Holly Eryngium bourgatii  flowers are crowded onto a dense head surrounded by 8 or more spiny bracts.

Giant Sea Holly Eryngium x giganteum ‘Miss Wilmott’s Ghost’ is native to the Caucasus and Iran. It is used as an ornamental plant in British gardens. It flowers in June and August. It wasIntroduced to Britain in 1820.

Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum is a wild flower native to sandy shores round Britain and Eryngium campestre  is an introduced wild flower species found in a few dry grassy places in England. 

Astrantia is a genus of 9 species native to Central and Eastern Europe. Great Masterwort Astrantia major was introduced to Britain in the 16th century and is a popular garden plant. It is now naturalised in woods in several locations in Britain. There are several garden varieties with pink or scarlet bracts.