What do carrots, cilantro, celery, and poison hemlock have in common? Think like a botanist. How do the leaves look? What shape is the root? What about the flowers? Yes, they’re all members of the Apiaceae (aka Umbelliferae) family of plants. So are caraway, anise, parsley, parsnips, and a whole host of other familiar species.
Members of this family are relatively easy to distinguish. The most obvious feature is in the way their flowers are arranged—like an umbrella, with a stalk and a cluster of flowers on stems all springing from a central point.
One popular perennial here in Colorado is Moon Carrot, Seseli gummiferum. The flowers are quite exotic, but the plants are easy to grow. Hardy between zones 5 and 9, they are drought tolerant, asking only for well-drained soil and full sun (although some light shade is acceptable, especially at higher elevations). Deadheading encourages the plants to overcome their biennial tendencies, although some self-seeding assures you of a continual display.
You will likely see a number of Apiaceae flowers on a wildflower hike into the Colorado Rockies. Mountain Parsley is easy to spot with its bright yellow blooms.
The flowers of this family are more than pretty. Many beneficial insects visit the blooms for nectar. I often include parsley (left) and cilantro in my garden, as they are both easy to grow. Cilantro is an annual, whereas parsley is a biennial—it requires some mulch to overwinter here.
When the plants begin to bolt, I let them go ahead and bloom, as the flowers attract ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, and other pest-eaters. (If I let them ripen seedheads, however, I’m ensured of a prolific crop of seedlings the next year, and not always where I want them growing! You’ve been warned.)
Then there are the long tap roots typical of this family. We eat some of these—not just carrots, but also parsley, celery, fennel, and parsnips.
Many family members have aromatic leaves and/or seeds—parsley again, plus cilantro (coriander), cumin, dill, anise, chervil, and caraway are just some examples.
While I’ve been listing edible species, remember that poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is also in this family. Native to North Africa and Europe, it’s considered a noxious weed in twelve states. Eating any part of the plant is deadly to both humans and livestock. Surprisingly, some insects are able to dine on poison hemlock with no ill effect, as this caterpillar is demonstrating. To identify poison hemlock, look for the reddish-purple splotches on the stems.
Another poisonous family member is fool’s parsley (Aethusa cynapium), native to the eastern hemisphere but introduced, and now naturalized, in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. It’s harder to accurately identify, as it lacks the purple “bruising” that poison hemlock exhibits, and the plants do look remarkably like parsley. WebMD states, “Despite serious safety concerns, people take fool’s parsley for stomach and intestinal problems, cholera, diarrhea, and seizures (convulsions).” Perhaps that’s where the plant’s common name comes from?
Water hemlock (Cicuta sp.) is even more deadly—in fact, the USDA considers it “the most violently toxic plant that grows in North America”! You can find water hemlock in the western half of the U.S.. As the name suggests, it grows requires wet soil. Because it looks quite similar to some edible relatives, including edible herbs and those with medicinal uses, exercise extreme caution when gathering any wild plants.
With some family members, you don’t even need to eat them to be injured. A number of species are phototoxic, particularly giant hogweed and many other plants in the genus Heracleum. Contact with the plant, followed by exposure to sunlight, results in a serious rash, a condition called phytophotodermatitis. I’ll think twice before I push through another clump of cow parsnip ( H. maximum, right and at top).
The Apiaceae provide the perfect illustration for the importance of honing your identification skills before eating (or, in some cases, even touching) any wild plant. For now, I’m content to photograph the lovely flowers, and only eat the plants I buy at the market or grow myself.