Thursday, 3 July 2014

A bunch of carrots - amended

The Carrot Family (the Apiaceae) forms an interesting bunch. Many of its members, such as carrots, parsnips and celery, are edible. Others, such as the Water Dropworts, Fools Parsley (Aethusa cynapiumand Hemlock (Conium maculatum) are dangerously poisonous. Some are ornamental.  They are collectively known as umbellifers and for well over a century the family was called the Umbelliferae, a reference to the often flat inflorescences - an arrangement known as an umbel.

Hacquetia epipactis comes into the ornamental category. Looking a little battered by wind and hail it is currently flowering in my garden. In truth, it doesn't look much like a member of the Carrot Family at all. It appears to have green flowers but in fact the green "petals" are a rosette of bracts, encircling a cluster of yellow flowers forming a tiny umbel. It is a native of central Europe where it tends to grow in open woodlands. Like many woodlanders such as Wood Anemones and Primroses, Hacquetia produces its flowers early in the year, before the tree canopy has shaded the woodland floor with its leaves. It is a delightful addition to a rock garden where it frequently provokes comment.

Among our native umbellifers the first to come to general notice - and it can hardly be overlooked - is Cow Parsley. To us as children it was always 'keck', the name by which John Clare knew it:

                           And keck made bugles spout their twanging sounds...

                                                        Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

Keck, Anthriscus sylvestris, in Byfield's
Pocket Park. 9 May, 2014

With frothy flowers keck lines roadsides and field margins in profusion and as kids we would seek out suitable hollow stems to make peashooters. Apparently it may also be added to soups and stews.

Sweet Cicely in my garden.
7 May, 2014

Flowering at about the same time is Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata. I grow it in my own back garden where, with its froth of white flowers and aniseed-scented leaves, it is a welcome addition to the border. It is not native to Britain but will sometimes be found as an escape on near gardens and I have found it on waste ground in Wellingborough.

The rather long, cylindrical fruits of Sweet Cecily are also distinctive.

Astrantia major in a Byfield garden.
31 May, 2014

Astrantia major, another uncarrot-like plant, has become very popular over the last couple of decades, not least because plant breeders have got to work and produced some lovely wine-red varieties. But even in its original form (shown in the photograph) it is very attractive in a quiet way, In some places, such as the grounds of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, it has become naturalised.

I do not grow any Astrantias. I had a gorgeous red form but lost it when a border was re-fashioned. I will eventually replace it, perhaps with something like this delicate pink - or is it lilac? - variety growing in the garden of my friend Oliver Tynan. So many are available nowadays that I hesitate to put a name to this, but it may be "Ruby Wedding", if not it must be... er, something else.

I ought to include a note about Hogweed, but have already published a blog, "The Hogweed Restaurant" dealing with that species, so I will move on.

Broadly speaking there are close on 3000 members of the family and most can be easily recognised, via their umbels, for what they are. But inevitably there are exceptions - members of the 'awkward squad'.
Eryngium giganteum in Pom Boddington's garden.
29 June, 2014

These thistles form  a striking addition to a garden are are also much sought after as cut flowers but, as you will have guessed, they are not thistles at all but 'carrots'. They are specimens of Eryngium giganteum, often referred to as 'Miss Wilmott's Ghost' 

Ellen Wilmott was a famous 19th century gardener who, it appears, would secretly scatter seeds of the plant in the other people's gardens. However, the popular name could equally refer to the ghostly silver appearance of the plant in the twilight. I photographed these specimens in Byfield, where they made a handsome feature of borders in the garden of my friend, 'Pom' Boddington.

So here we have a 'carrot' with a very thistle-like appearance. It strikes me as a good example of convergent evolution, that is, a situation where two organisms, not closely related, arrive at  a similar solution to a shared problem by adopting a broadly similar form or structure. Thistles - members of the Daisy family - and Eryngium species have tiny flowers yet need to attract insect pollinators. Both have solved this difficulty by crowding the individual flowers into larger structures, making them very attractive to bees and many other types of insect. At the same time both have developed spiky leaves and bracts as a defence against herbivores. Other examples of convergent evolution include Astrophytum - a genus of cacti - and certain spurges such as Euphorbia obesa; they are strikingly similar even though the two families are only distantly related. One could go on to consider bats and the extinct pterosaurs but enough is enough. 

Before moving on, a close-up of Miss Wilmott's Ghost shows how successful the inflorescences are in attracting bees.

A honey bee, Apis mellifera,visiting Eryngium giganteum.
Pom Boddington's garden, Byfield. 29 June, 2014

Mating Rhagonycha fulva at Boddington Meadow.
2 July, 2014

I have included photographs of Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, elsewhere on 
blogs so I will not include another. But at the moment it is in full bloom everywhere and
most plants will have, on their umbels, the beetle, Rhagonycha fulva. This insect is generally known as the Hogweed Bonking Beetle. I cannot think why! 


Hemlock at Boddington Reservoir.
3 July, 2014

Next, "keck" again - or is it? Keck (Anthriscus sylvestris) may, as I've already said, be added to soups and stews. To add this would be unwise, for it is hemlock, Conium maculatum. "Maculatum" means spotted, and the purple-blotched stems of the plant are very obvious and so it would be very careless to mistake this for any other species.

The purple-blotched stems of Hemlock
at Boddington Reservoir

For this photograph I hand-held my camera on the steep bank of Boddington Reservoir - a distinctly awkward position - so I will not apologise for the quality, but felt obliged to include it.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Daucus carota, the carrot itself. The subspecies sativus is the cultivated form but we do have the Wild Carrot, subspecies carota, native in Northamptonshire. It is widespread on grassy and rough ground, especially if the soil is limy. It has the usual umbel of white flowers but almost invariably there is a red or purple flower in the centre. It is found right across our county and occurs here in Byfield's pocket park.

The family contains some 2800 species worldwide so a blog can only give a glimpse of the huge range of the forms and characteristic exhibited. Now, get those carrots eaten so you'll be able to see in the dark.

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