Barbara Lawton's Parsleys, Fennels and Queen Anne's Lace

The Not So Humble Umbel
There is a family that includes sweet, spicy and poisonous among its almost 3,000 members.

Barbara Lawton, award winning writer and photographer wrote about this plant family in her book, Parsleys, Fennels and Queen Anne’s Lace. Here are a few items from the book to whet your appetite to learn more and then add them to your garden.

The family name varies from umbel, Umbelliferae and Apiaceae, but includes the plant that Socrates used to commit suicide, hemlock, and one of American’s favorite vegetables, the carrot

In a telephone interview from her home near St. Louis, Lawton said, Gardeners can just wander around the mint family planting any of them. That is not true of the Umbels-parsley family. People don’t realize how poisonous some of these plants, like hemlock, are. Hemlock and Queen Anne’s Lace look very similar.

What would Mexican food be without cilantro or German food without caraway? Sausage has to have fennel and potato salad has to have celery. All of these are members of the same plant family.

They are all called Umbelliferae because most of them have flowers clustered into flat heads. Umbra means shade and is the base of the word umbrella.

The parsleys are all easy to grow, Lawton said. I can see butterflies all over the annual and perennial fennels I grow as ornamental plants. They drop seed and I have plants to give away.

Since many members of the family are scented, their flower heads were found to be used in graves 60,000 years ago.

Shakespeare mentioned parsley in the Taming of the Shrew and in Hamlet he talked of fennel. The Merry Wives of Wind mentions Eryngium or sea holly.

Victorian ladies, forbidden from speaking in a forthright manner, used flowers to symbolize their emotions. For example, Angelica represented inspiration, coriander stood for concealed merit. A tussy mussy bouquet, containing fennel was meant to praise the recipient.

Wealthy gardener and garden designer Ellen Willmott, financially backed botanists and plant explorers. To reward her generosity, they named plants after her.

A frequent participant in garden tours, Miss Willmott always carried seeds of her favorite plant, the blue-green sea holly. Every garden Willmott toured was secretly scattered with seeds. Today, Eryngium giganteum ‘Bierberstein’ is nicknamed Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Lawton said, Miss Willmott’s Ghost (Eryngium giganteum) and amethyst sea holly (amethystinum) are sensational. Another asset is that they tolerate salt, so they can be planted near the driveway.

Many members of the Umbelliferae family are considered medicinal today. Common examples: Dill added to salads to aid the digestion of raw vegetables, Celery is mixed with heavy foods as a diuretic, Angelica is added to liquors to aid kidneys. Caraway cleans the breath after spicy foods and aids digestion. Salmonella bacteria are killed by coriander and fennel is used to treat fatigue.

Parsley is widely used to soothe upset stomach, as well as to cure kidney and bladder problems. Anise seeds are chewed and made into liquor to be used as a digestive aid. Anise oil is widely used to soothe gums, added to cough drops and mouthwashes.

The wild carrot that grows in our ditches is commonly called Queen Anne’s Lace. The World Carrot Museum ( says that there is carrot pollen in fossils from 55-million years ago and that the first carrots were purple and white.

Parsnip roots are sweeter and more nutritious than their cousin, the carrot. The Emperor Tiberius enjoyed them so much he had them imported them from the Rhine River for his table in Rome.

Another popular parsley, Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), is an OK native, said Lawton. People are re-discovering these wonderful prairie plants to use in their gardens.

Most members of the family are pest free unless you consider butterfly caterpillars to be pests. Black swallowtail butterflies are sometimes called parsnip swallowtail because of their food preference.

This book is a fun, interesting and inspiring read. It contains chapters on native Umbels, the best ones for the gardener, the herbalist and dried flower arranger with color plates and historic drawings. Reading it will make you want to add Umbels to your garden.

Parsleys, Fennels and Queen Anne’s Lace was published in 2007 by Timber Press. $30 at and $20 at online booksellers.


Unknown said…
Fennel, Queen Ann's Lace, parsley and ironweed are my favorite wildflowers! My father makes fun of me because I grow "weeds" in my garden!
Molly Day said…
I'm guilty of growing weeds, too, Bobbi.

I let several wild umbels grow and flower in our yard. The skippers seem to enjoy them and they aren't in the way.

The fennel has been taken over this week with swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. That makes me so happy!

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