The Gardener's Apprentice

Umbrellas and Bees

Plant taxonomists are the scientists who make it their business to classify the world’s flora according to common characteristics.  In the last thirty years or so, DNA has become a major player in this effort.  Now plants that dirt gardeners, horticulturists and plant scientists only suspected of family relationships have been grouped or regrouped based on DNA evidence.  It is exciting stuff for scientists, but sometimes rather frustrating for gardeners, who have used the same Latin names for plants or plant groups since just after the Great Flood, only to find that they have changed.  The changes lead to complaining, a distinct kind of manure that has long fertilized many gardens.  Eventually that manure breaks down and feeds gardens—one way or another.

I thought about this not long ago when I read a great article in England’s Telegraph newspaper, which has very good gardening coverage.  The piece, by celebrated English horticulturist, Val Bourne, was “Top 10 Best Cow Parsleys for Pollinators”.  Most Americans would find this title incomprehensible, as we don’t generally use the term “cow parsley”.  “Cow parsleys” are field plants that are members of the Umbelliferae or carrot family, commonly found growing at the edges of farmers’ fields, on country roadsides and in other untended, sunny spaces.  Probably the best known umbellifer in this country is Queen Anne’s lace, a naturalized American that is found everywhere.

The family name “Umbelliferae” comes from the Latin root, “umbra”, meaning “shade”.  It also gave rise to words like “umbrella”, a device that shades us from the elements, not to mention the color “umber” a shady shade of brown.  “Umbelliferae” is very descriptive, as the flowers of some species, including fennel; angelica and plain old carrots or Daucus carota ssp sativus, look like upside down umbrellas when they are viewed from the underside or have gone to seed.

Plant taxonomists clearly thought the umbrella-like name did not really characterize the plant family, so they renamed it “Apiaceae”.  This name, while less evocative, is also descriptive, derived from the Latin root “apis”, meaning bee.  The same root gave us the word “apiary”, a fancy term for a beehive.  The connection between the former umbellifers and bees is that plants in the family are full of nectar and extremely attractive to bees and other pollinators.

Which brings us back to cow parsley.  If you are planning a garden for pollinators, members of the Apiaceae family are excellent choices.  The most popular member in this country at least, is astrantia, sometimes called “masterwort”.  These feature long-lasting 1.5 inch flowerheads in varying shades of pink or greenish white.  Each flower boasts a central umbel of tiny florets surrounded by a corona of daisy-like petals.  The sun-loving plants rise 18 to 24 inches, with and 18 inch spread and flower stems that are nearly leafless, because all the palmate leaves are in a mound at the base.  Masterwort prefers consistently moist soil and long, cool summers, but some hybrids do nicely in less congenial climates if they receive enough regular moisture.  Happy plants spread by underground stolons and some varieties self-seed.  One popular cultivar, ‘Roma’, features silvery pink flowers and a civilized habit that does not generally lead to unwanted offspring.  The flowerheads also make excellent dried specimens.

Pollinator-friendly cow parsley looks more like a thistle than an umbrella.  It is Eryngium or sea holly.  The most popular varieties sport blue-ish compound flower heads that are rather conical in shape.  Each is surrounded by a ring of green, spiky-looking bracts.   As with masterwort, sea holly features basal leaves that are palmately divided.  Unlike masterwort, sea holly can grow up to three feet tall.  Fortunately for small-space and container gardeners, compact varieties, like Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’, grow only 12 inches tall.

And finally, for a pollinator-friendly umbellifer that actually flaunts those umbrella-like characteristics, try Ammi majus, a more civilized, less invasive substitute for its look-alike cousin, Queen Anne’s lace.  It grows up to four feet tall, so it is most suitable for the middle of a large border or the rear of a small one.  The foliage is typically fern like and the compound flowerheads are full of white or greenish-white blooms.  If you can steal Ammi blooms away from the bees, they, like many cow parsleys, make great cut flowers.

And one last word about bees…Some people are deathly afraid of these invaluable pollinators because of severe allergies or simple fear of being stung.  I know passionate gardeners who carry their epinephrine injectors whenever they venture outside, allowing themselves both the joy of the hobby and the security of quick treatment in the unlikely event of a sting.  In my experience, stings happen rarely unless you inadvertently disturb the insect.  Over a long gardening career I have only been stung twice, both times by wasps and both times because I happened to put my hand near an unseen wasp that was going about its business.  In the garden as elsewhere, it pays to pay attention.

Most of us do not use old-fashioned, umbrella-like parasols in the garden anymore, but we can still be genteel and invite a few umbellifers home for tea with the pollinators.