Parasols in the garden

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ammi majus in my summer border, near dark-leaved Amaranthus cruentus

One of the delights of this summer in my garden has been the flowering of the tall, dreamy annual Queen Anne's lace (Ammi majus), which I have grown for the first time. Statuesque plants, to 1.2 m in height, they have been blooming for weeks now, with broad slightly domed heads comprised of many clusters of hundreds of miniscule white flowers, each cluster held on stalks of different lengths that come out from a common point on the main stem. Within each little cluster, individual flowers are held in that same domed shape, the overall effect being like an intricate lace parasol! The flowers seem to float in the border, and have intermingled with the spires of my shrubby Salvia as well as nearby Dahlia, and arranged themselves to contrast against a backdrop of dark-leaved Amaranthus cruentus, another imposing annual plant. During this time, I have been able to entertain the pleasant delusion that my garden looks sort of 'English-y', because Queen Anne's lace is so commonly seen naturalised in hedgerows and meadows in that country. The weight of the recent very heavy rain in Sydney bowed them down, but they bounced back once the rain stopped. A posy of them recently picked by my daughter demonstrated that they are an excellent cut flower!

Orlaya grandiflora

Queen Anne's lace is a member of the Apiaceae family of plants (previously called Umbelliferae), the inflorescences of all of which have a common form, known as an 'umbel', as described above. The family contains more than 400 genera, covering a surprising range of well-known and not-so-well-known plants, many of which have a fleshy, tap-like root. The most suitable ornamental ones for Sydney seem to be the annuals, and they like an open sunny position in the garden. Ammi visnaga, sometimes known as bishop's flower, is tall and looks rather like Queen Anne's lace (though not quite as decorative to my eyes); whereas the delightful spring-blooming annual Orlaya grandiflora is a compact version. This one was given to me in the 1990s, when seeds were passed from gardener to gardener (it is now obtainable from some seed sellers). Its individual flowers are larger than Queen Anne's lace though the overall inflorescence is smaller. It comes up ever year from seed and looks very pretty growing amongst spring shrubs, roses and perennials. I usually let some of the plants go to seed and shake the seeds around once the seed pods have matured; and I plan to do the same with my Queen Anne's lace plants. I will be interested to see how prolific the self-seedlings are! I may be cursing the plant one day ...

Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing in bloom, Chelsea Flower Show, London, 2013

Most of the ornamental perennial members of the Apiaceae family are unsuitable for the mild, humid Sydney climate. Astrantia, Eryngium, Bupleurum, Smyrnium and Myrrhis are some of the ones I have killed in my time; meanwhile, in the UK they do brilliantly. The only one I have actually had success with is the Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing', a refined relative of the herb chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), with beautiful dark ferny foliage and tall stems of frothy white umbelliferous flowers. It has never bloomed in my garden, however! In England, it has been the star of many show gardens over the past few years, and it performs well in cool climates in NSW.

Flowers of parsley

Many of our valuable culinary herbs belong to the Apiaceae family: parsley, coriander, cumin, chervil, caraway, dill, anise, fennel and lovage. Allowed to go to flower, all these plants will produce those characteristic umbels of bloom. Their foliage is generally ferny and attractive, and they can be decorative in the the garden. Allowing a few of such herbs to go to seed not only means you are likely to get some self-seedling for subsequent years' crops, but you will be providing vital nectar for helpful garden insects such as lacewings, ladybugs and hoverflies, which are particularly attracted to the flowers of the Apiaceae family. Such insects will prey on the nasty bugs such as aphids in your garden, so that chemical controls can be avoided. Also, you can harvest and dry your own seeds for cooking, as these are often just as useful as the fresh leaves in the kitchen.

There are also vegetables that belong to the Apiaceae family, such as carrots, celery and parsnips; fennel is also grown as a root crop. Allowed to run to seed, these vegetables will produce the same airy froth of flowers as the ornamental genera in the family. Not all members of the Apiaceae are edible, however. The family includes the poison hemlock ( Conium maculatum), which killed Socrates, and other toxic specimens, so there is a darker side to this tribe of plants.

I always find it fascinating to discover which plants belong together in a family. In this particular case, I've discovered that not only can the Apiaceae family provide culinary treats, but it can give me pretty flowers and encourage helpful insects to come into my garden!