Growing the Wild Carrot Family

All gardeners know that plants go in and out of fashion.  My mother was a huge fan of dahlias – once popular in every suburban garden, then shunned for many years as blowsy and common, but now back in vogue.   In the garden of my childhood home these giants were grown alone in large beds, their huge symmetrical heads (which towered above mine) engorged by the well-rotted manure from the chickens at the end of our garden.  These enormous ‘daisies’ are part of the Compositae family of plants.  Fashion, it seems, plays a huge part in the availability of garden plants and this group - the carrot family or Umbellifers - would never have seen the light of day in my childhood garden, in spite of my mother’s forward thinking attitude to gardening.  Carrots, parsnips and parsley were strictly for the allotment! 

TheUmbellifers have never featured hugely in our gardens until fairly recently; now however they have become the darlings of many a mixed border.  But what about their wild cousins?  We have over 70 species of Umbellifer in our countryside.  Are they all rank and rampant like cow parsley, hogweed and the dreaded ground elder and thus best left to the wider areas of country lanes and meadows, or can they find a home in our gardens?  The answer is a definite ‘yes’.  Many of the carrot family, including the wild carrot itself, are pretty and delicate, easy to grow and adaptable.  This group also contains some of the best native species for attracting hoverflies, so growing these plants will certainly bring useful predatory insects to your garden.  In the wild they occur in all types of habitat including woodlands, seashores and meadows, in waste places, on roadsides and under hedgerows.  Many occur in watery environments such as pond edges and on riversides.  Some, including hemlock and some of the species of dropwort, are poisonous, while others - carrot, parsnip, chervil, lovage, angelica and caraway for instance - are edible.  Flower colour in all these plants is usually a delicate creamy white, although yellow also occurs (wild parsnip, fennel and pepper saxifrage) and others, including sanicle and great burnet saxifrage have a tinge of pink in their tiny petals.  Even the ubiquitous hogweed will sometimes appear with rose coloured flowers.  Another outstanding wild member of this family is the sea holly – spiky leaves and shiny prickly blue flowers.  Beautiful, but difficult to grow in an average garden, preferring the salt laden soils of its native seashore home.  Almost all of these plants have strongly scented foliage; some sweet and aromatic, others acrid and unpleasant and all have umbels of many tiny flowers.  In all, a varied and interesting group of wild plants.

For garden cultivation the choice is wide depending upon the habitat in which you wish to include them.  In the average sunny herbaceous border, plants that behave themselves are usually the first choice, so wild carrot is a good place to start.  This little plant is biennial, so unwanted seedlings can always be easily pulled up by hand or hoed in spring, although in my experience it doesn’t always sow itself with wild abandon.  This plant is a joy throughout the year, with delicate ferny foliage and quite large umbels of tiny white flowers, usually with a single maroon red flower in the very centre.  This is thought to resemble an insect feeding, thus encouraging other insects to visit the tiny flowers.  After pollination is complete the flower head becomes a incurved basket of seeds worthy of drying and using in winter decorations.

Another member of this family deserving of a place in any border is Astrantia or masterwort.  This wildflower is a native of France but has not crossed the channel under its own steam.  It was introduced in the 16th century and is now naturalised in a few locations and has become a garden favourite in its many cultivated forms.  Most of these come in shades of pink and all are equally beautiful, but the delicate shaggy wildflower is still my favourite.  Bees buzz around it to collect pollen and it’s versatility means it is happy in a little shade.

If growing a few wildflowers is a priority and you have shady corners to fill, then sweet cicely is something you should never be without.  It earns its common name from both the sweetly scented leaves and the seeds, the latter having a delicious flavour of sugary aniseed and said to be an appetite suppressant.  This is a long lived wildflower with a tap root so not easy to move from one spot to another. It will self seed though, or can be easily increased as long as the large seeds are left outside through the cold winter months to allow the frost to work on them. The seeds can be eaten – when baked with rhubarb or other sharp fruit they add a subtle sweetness to crumbles and pies.  Shady spots will also suit the little wood sanicle, a delicate white-blossomed plant for a hedge bottom or under trees.

If you have poorly drained clay soil or a pond with a damp edge you may want to try the positively statuesque wild angelica.  In a suitable spot this plant can reach 2 meters in height, its stems and leaves suffused with pinky purple.  It is a perennial plant, unlike the cultivated angelica which tends to be biennial, and our wildflower’s Latin name of Angelica sylvestris indicates its preferences, sylvestris meaning ‘of the woods’.  It is ideal for a damp and shady place where other plants may not thrive.  There are many others in this family which enjoy damp places, especially the water dropworts and water parsnips, but these are best avoided in garden situations, many being rampant and some very poisonous.

If your garden is sufficiently wild there is nothing like the white froth of cow parsley or Queen Anne’s Lace in May.  Beware though – it spreads relentlessly and sweet cicely may be a better-behaved substitute.  I also love wild parsnip, with its tall, stately, bright yellow flowers.  Even hogweed has it’s virtues, being one of the best hoverfly attractants in this group.  A garden meadow can also accommodate several species including the pretty wild carrot already described, pignut with its tiny edible root, hedge parsley, chervil and burnet saxifrage.  These species are adapted to making their living in grassy places and as long as a regime of cutting and raking annually is maintained, will cause no problems and add a froth of white flowers in summer.
Identification of our carrot family members in the wild is notoriously difficult. Few of these species are available as plants in nurseries or garden centres but seeds of many of them can be obtained from wildflower seed suppliers - where the Umbellifers are concerned it is best to go to the experts to make sure you get the species you want.  Grow them, get to know them at close quarters and soon you will wonder how you ever managed without these delicate flowers in your garden.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017