The early umbellifers

To me, there is no other group of plants that says ‘country garden or country bouquet’ quite like the umbellifers.  They all belong to the family Apiaceae but cover several genus and can be annual, biennial or perennial.  They are mostly delicate and intricate but display nature’s detailed geometry to perfection within each umbel or flower.  They seem truly British but most hail from other countries.

The season of flower begins towards the end of April in South West UK starting with Alexanders, Smyrnium olosatrum.  It looks similar to Angelica and I love to forage it when I can to include in my flower arrangements of early Tulips and Tazzetta Daffodils. The frothy umbels are soft yellow and it brings lightness to larger, more showy flowers when in combination.  It was cultivated in cottage gardens up to the mid 18th Century as an alternative to celery and is now re-gaining popularity as an edible with fashionable London restaurants.

The related Smyrnium perfoliatum is perhaps easier to grow in a wider range of places and is also early but quite distinct from the former in the way the leaves cup the flower stems. Also the umbels are a more yallery-green.  Self-seeds widely when happy and looks great in a copse as the colour really brings light.  Also great as a cut flower.

Very quickly we move on to Cow Parsley which can span a long season as in some places it flowers incredibly early and others very late.  Although an essential ingredient in a spring bouquet, probably best for wilder parts in the garden as it quickly colonises areas.  However, the dark leaved Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ isn’t nearly as prolific and looks wonderful in a flower border with the claret thistle flowers of Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’.

There is also a yellow leaved form which is particularly handsome in February, March and


Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’ just coming into flower

Anthriscus 2

Yellow leaved form of Anthriscus

April before flowering when the leaves are a yallery lime green.  I grow it amongst my Snowdrops and Hellebores in a lightly shaded border and visitors always comment on it favourably often requesting seedlings.

Another Cow Parsley type favourite which begins flowering in May is Chaerophyllum hirsutus ‘Roseum’.  I have had this plant for a very long time.  I love using it in flower arrangements and in the garden it looks brilliant with blue Camassia leichtlinii, Dicentra all forms and Honesty.  It likes a good, rich soil in not too much sun but other than that is easy and long lived.

pink cow parsley

Chaerophyllum hirsutus ‘Roseum’

Also coming into flower now is Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’.  I remember getting very excited about this plant when I found it at a specialist plant fair over 12 years ago.  Unfortunately, it is rather ungainly as a garden plant but as a cut flower it is fantastic.  It looks like a cross between a Hellebore and Angelica with a herby fragrance and lasts forever in water!


Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’


Also beginning into flower are the early Astrantia.  There are now a vast amount of cultivars to choose from.  Some have amazingly large flowers but I find the ones with larger flowers tend to produce fewer stems for cutting and make less of a show in the garden overall.  I love cutting them for arrangements but beware, some smell distinctly of cheese!  I avoid these for arrangements!!!

My two absolute favourites and I have many different varieties, are: ‘Buckland’ which I think was introduced by the amazing Keith Wiley of Wildside Nursery when he was at the Garden House in Buckland Monachorum, Devon, not only for it’s subtle colouration and shapely bloom but also it’s sheer intent on giving 3 good displays of blooms per year and always the first into flower with me; ‘Roma’ for it’s abundance of bloom and good pink flowers, usually giving two good shows a year.  This was introduced by Piet Oudolf when he was a mere nurseryman and was a real breakthrough at the time because prior to that the only good pink Astrantia was maxima which only usually flowers onces, burns in too much sun and sulks in too much shade so ‘Roma’ took a leap to stardom.

I could continue into June umbellifers but I will be here all day and no time for that so I will talk about, Ammi, Bupleurum, Daucus and others another time!

16 May 2016

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