Umbellifers – big word!
It describes a family of plants that have ‘umbrella-type’ flowers, usually, though not always white. They includes many that are edible – Cow Parsley, Hogweed, Alexanders, Ground Elder, Sweet Cicely and Pignut; as well as some very poisonious – Hemlock, Fool’s Parsley and Cowbane. Carrots, Parsnips, Celery and their wild forebears are Umbellifers as are the contents of several of our herb / spice jars – Fennel, Angelica, Coriander, Chervil, Parsley, Caraway and Lovage.
There are many more plants within this family, so its very important to be sure of identification. Some are very easy – Alexanders – its very tall in the hedgerow very early, bright (almost lime) green stems and flowers. Hogweed -its rought stems and large leaves are quite different from most of its relations.
Others are more simular – Cow Parsley and Sweet Cicely look quite simular, but rub the leaves of the latter and the smell is very aromatic (appartently its like myrrh giving its latin name as Myrrhis odorata), both plants can be used in mixed salads. The seeds of Sweet Cicely can also be used as a flavouring.
I’m pretty good at my identification of most wild flowers, but last summer I spotted a patch of Umbellifers I didn’t recognise and wanted to identify them, I picked a stem or two and tok them home. I poured over my collection of Wild Food, Herb and Wild Flower books, I couldn’t tell, I took the books back to the location with me, I still couldn’t tell. I had it down to a choice of two or three from the 50 or so choices, but I had to leave it as an unidentified mystery. Needless to say I didn’t try eating it!
The differences between Cow Parsley and Hemlock are obvious when conforted with both and a comparison is possible or the forager is experinced. The Cow Parsley’s leaves are delicate, soft green, down-y, the stems are gently hairy and either green-ish or purple-ish or greeny-purple-ish. The decription of Hemlock is much the same, pictures in books (photos or drawn) are not completly clear (in fact in the 2001 colour edition of Richard Mabey’s book ‘Food for Free’ he has a picture of Hogweed labelled as Hemlock!!) Hemlock’s leaves are a slightly darker green and a little bit glossier, a bit thicker cut, the stems are smooth, and green-ish with purple-ish flecks. Very subtle differences!
Hemlock was used at least since the Greeks as a poison (Socrates was executed using Hemlock juice). One of Cow Parsley’s old names is Mother Die. The most dire warnings are given to ensure that a poisonous plant is not confused with an edible one, please heed them! If in doubt, don’t pick it!