I’ve always liked this family, it is easily recognisable, especially the second subfamily, which are the true ‘Umbels’.
The whole plant is attractive in my opinion. The foliage can be very delicate and sometimes the first greenery to be witnessed in late winter. Then the umbels themselves can be like lace, giving food to many insects and later when all foil has gone a statuesque reminder of what has been. With a bit of practice or using the keys in either ‘The New Flora of the British Isles’ by Clive Stace or ‘The Wild Flower Key’ by Francis Rose, it is not difficult to identify them in the field. It is easier if you can find some ripe fruit and look through a magnifying glass, as these are one of their main diagnostic features.
Some are poisonous and as many genera can look a bit similar, you must be very sure, before you use any as food or medicine! Best to grow your own as many native Umbels are common and easy to propagate by their seeds!
Now for the more scientific stuff:
This family is split into 2 subfamilies and the first subfamily; called Saniculoideae, has got 3 genera of which the first and third genera have native species. At first glance these don’t look like Umbels although once known they are certainly distinct. Sanicula europaea or Sanicle and Eryngium maritimum or the Sea-Holly are the only two useful natives.
There are 47 different genera in the subfamily Apioidea and I will list all native or archeophytes below (from Stace) with their scientific (always in italic, which is the rule in nomenclature!) as well as one common name. There may be several to many common names, which you can find through the links.
This sub family has many edible as well as medicinal uses! About the more useful ones I will write in more detail below the long list.
The links below the name give you a nice picture + description. The pink background tells you it is poisonous. But the poisonous ones are frequently, although mostly in the past, used as Herbal Medicine.
Chaerophyllum temulum or Rough Chervil
Anthriscus sylvestris or Cow Parsley
Myrrhis odorata or Sweet Cicely
Coriandrum sativum or Coriander
Smyrnium olusatrum or Alexander
Bunium bulbocastanum or Great Pignut
Berula erecta or Lesser Water-parsnip
Crithmum maritimum or Rock Samphire
Seseli libanotis or Moon Carrot
Aethusa cynapium or Fool’s Parsley
Anethum graveolens or Dill (bird seed or grain-alien)
Silaum silaus or Pepper-saxifrage
Meum athamanticum or Spignel has interesting uses in the past as a food and medicinal!
Physospermum cornubiense or Bladderseed
Conium maculatum or Hemlock (Archaeophyte, very poisonous!!)
Trinia glauca or Honewort
Cuminum cymimum or Cumin is a bird-seed alien and from use as a spice.
Apium graveolens or Wild Celery
Apium repens or Creeping Marshwort
Apium inundatum or Lesser Marshwort
Trachyspermum ammi or Ajowan
Petroselinum segetum or Corn Parsley
Ridolfia segetum or False Fennel: highly rated by Sarah Raven for its useful flowers for flower arranging as well as good bee plant.
Sison amomum or Stone Parsley
Cicuta virosa or Cowbane: very poisenous!
Carum carvi or Caraway NN
C. verticillatum or Whorled caraway
Selinum carvifolia or Cambridge Milk-parsley
Ligusticum scoticum or Scots Lovage
Angelica sylvestris or Wild Angelica
Levisticum officinale or Lovage NN
Peucedanum officinale or Hog’s Fennel
Thyselium palustre or Milk-parsley
Imperatoria sp. NN
Pastinaca sativa ssp. sylvestris (Wild Parsnip) This is the wild, non edible form of Pastinaca sativa or Parsnip. In Europe, various subspecies have been named based on characteristics such as the hairiness of the leaves, the extent to which the stems are angled or rounded, and the size and shape of the terminal umbel.
Heracleum spondylium or Hogweed
Tordylium maximum or Hartwort
Skin contact with the foliage of Daucus carota, especially wet foliage, can cause skin irritation. “Sensitized photosensitive persons may get an exact reproduction of the leaf on the skin by placing the leaf on the skin for a while, followed by exposure to sunshine.” Contact with the cell sap of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) can cause skin irritation and blistering.
A bit in more detail about the edible uses of the Umbellifers: (for pictures see list/links above)
Anthriscus sylvestris or Cow Parsley should be picked as soon as you can identify it properly. Later in the year it will get too bitter. It dries well! Good to add for salads. Cold potato, tomato, and cucumber. Flavouring for hot haricot beans, and herb omelettes. But don’t pick along roads (car-fumes!)
Apium graveolens or Wild Celery: use dried leaves (dry for 3 weeks) in soup or sparingly fresh in salads Richard Mabey in ‘Food for Free’
Fennel; the whole plant is edible and has a fresh , nutty flavour. Seeds gathered late in October have a strong smell dried. Fennel was one of the Anglo-Saxon herbalists’ nine sacred herbs, and later writers credit it with astonishingly versatile powers (from The Englishman’s Doctor)
Angelica sylvestris or Wild Angelica is a close relative of the garden angelica or A. archangelica , it is thinner and more bitter than the cultivated variety, but good enough as a flavouring. Slice the stems into 4 inch lengths, scrape off any tough outside fibres, and then simmer in sugar syrup until tender. Drain off the syrup, strew crushed sugar over the stems and simmer again until this thicker syrup is clear. Lift the stems on to a tray, boil up the syrup to sugar point, pour over the angelica; then drain, boil and pour again, repeating the cycle until the stems can be dried into firm, crystallised lengths.
Myrrhis odorata or Sweet Cicely. This beautiful (ornamental!) plant has feathery leaves which have a distinctly sugary overtone to their mild aniseed flavour and are ideal for flavouring stewed fruits such as gooseberries and plums. Some experimenters have been able to halve the amount of sugar they would normally use for such dishes by the plentiful addition of the herb.
Gerard was much in favour of sweet cicely!
Parsley crispum or the Garden Parsley. Try frying your parsley for half a minute in hot oil and serve as vegetable. This culinary herb is considered as a herbal multivitamin. It provides sources of Vitamin A, C and iron. It may also be good for the heart and help against the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Ligusticum scoticum or Scots Lovage was eaten in the past occasionally against scurvy
The flavour of both Lovages; the Scots Lovage as well as the cultivated Ligusticum officinale is (R. Mabey) basically resembling celery, but having quite strong yeasty overtones. Because of this, lovage has been used to add body to the flavour of soups and casseroles when meat is short.
Smyrnium olustratum or Alexanders. The Romans brought alexanders to this country from the Mediterranean, as a pot-herb. It thrived, became naturalised, and was still being planted in kitchen gardens in the early eighteenth century. Most parts of the plant have been used in the kitchen at one time or another. A seventeenth century botanists described a soup made of the upper part of the roots. The flower buds were used in medieval salads. And the young leaves make a spicy addition to modern green salads. The most succulent part of the plant is the lower blanched stem. Cook these stems in boiling water for not more than ten minutes. Then eat them like asparagus, with molten butter. They have a wonderfully delicate texture, and a pleasantly aromatic taste.
Crithmum maritimum or Rock samphire is frequent on rocky coasts in the south and west. Both leaves and stems are used for boiling. Boil for 15 minutes and serve with melted butter. Also known as a pickle. It was John Evelyn’s favourite vegetable!
Heracleum sphondylium: Hogweed or Cow parsnip: The young shoots are marvellously fleshy. (R. Mabey)