As we welcome the new year, and plan for the new gardening season, its time to get back to my series on garden plant families. If you look back through the posts, you’ll find we’ve already covered the mints, the brassicas, the nightshades and the alliums (the series is also listed under “gardening” on the DIY Homesteading tab above).

The Apiaceae (which translates to celery family), or in old school terminology, the Umbelliferae (named for the shape of the seed head in this family, which resembles an umbrella), includes carrots, celery, celeriac, parsnips, and many of our commonly used herbs, including parsley, cilantro/coriander, dill, cumin, anise, fennel, caraway, chervil and lovage. Which is a good indication that the plants in this family are often aromatic. This family also includes the famous deadly poisonous hemlock and water hemlock, so this is one you want to be 100% sure of your identification on if you are out foraging.

The primary ingredient in my mixed herb pesto is flat leaf parsley.

The easiest way to identify this plant family is when plants are in bloom. They all share a “compound umbel” shape. Umbel simply means that the stems holding each flower all meet at one central point, like the center of the ribs of an umbrella. Compound means that at the end of each of these flower stems, there is a second “umbel”, and at the end of each of THOSE stems you’ll find the actual flower. The many flowered “head” tends to be flat to dome shaped.

Compound Umbel structure. Note how all the stems on both umbels meet at ONE point. This is important to distinguish this family from others that at a glance may seem to be similar in structure, such as yarrow.

If you’re a plant nerd and you look really closely, parsley family’s tiny flowers have 5 sepals, 5 petals and 5 stamens. The ovary is inferior and consists of 2 united carpels. That means that before the seeds are completely dry and shatter apart, they tend to be in sets of 2. Some, like coriander, tend to stay connected, which is why when you plant coriander, you almost always get two plants growing from the same seed (which in reality is actually two seeds fused together).

Queen Anne’s Lace, which is really just a wild carrot. It tends to be weedy in our area, but I always leave a few around to feed beneficial insects.

Medicinally, specific plants in this family are diaphoretics (warming, causing a mild fever), which can be carefully used to help “break” a fever by heating the body enough to destroy the pathogen causing the illness. Some are also used as a decongestant. Some have antiviral properties. Some can be used to relieve menstrual symptoms. And many are thought to help expel gas, which is why you’ll often see fennel/anise seed candies offered at the end of a meal in some cultures. That’s actually also the use of that sprig of parsley on the plate in a restaurant. As a breath freshener/to settle the stomach at the end of the meal.

Plants in this family are also well known to attract beneficial insects, providing a flat landing pad and serving up pollen and nectar for a host of good guys you want in your garden. Larval forms of several butterflies, including swallowtails, feed on the plants. So if you see a caterpillar in your dill or fennel, that might be an indication that you’re doing something right rather than an indication that you need to reach for a spray bottle.

Swallowtail larvae on parsley family plants. Image by wineguide101 from Pixabay

Most culinary plants in this family prefer cooler weather, and can quickly send up flowers and go to seed when the weather turns warm. I’ve had parsley, cilantro and dill reseed itself and come up as early as March. Cilantro, especially, is notorious for going from the vegetative stage to “bolting” and sending up a seed stock virtually overnight. Which is why its so hard to have cilantro ready to harvest for your salsa when your tomatoes are finally ripe in August.

Many of the plants are biannual, meaning they are vegetative the first year, and then go to seed the second year. I have direct experience with this with carrots, parsley and cutting celery. I always try to leave a few parsley to go to seed the second year so that I can restore my own seed stores, and often, it reseeds itself and I don’t have to plant it at all. Because the seeds are often the point of growing the crop, I often simply let dill and cilantro go to seed, providing an insectary row for beneficial insects in the garden, and then harvest seed for my own use in the fall. It’s a win win. I’ve harvested cutting celery seed in its second year and made my own celery salt!

Coriander (ie the seed from cilantro). Image by PDPics from Pixabay

When starting seed in a greenhouse or indoors, parsley, celery and celeriac are some of the earliest seeds you can sow, in early March. They can take a LONG time to germinate, and need even moisture with barely a covering of soil, but once up, I find they are fairly bombproof and take to transplanting with little drama. (I’ve successfully grown my own celery for years, but because of the structure of the tightly packed stems, it often ends up being a habitat for a lot of earwigs and slugs by the end of the season. While edible, it often looks a bit chewed on by harvest, which makes it a non-commercial crop for me.

A very large celery from a few years ago, after most of the damaged outer stalks had been removed.

It should go without saying, but don’t try to start carrots early for transplant. It’s virtually impossible to move them without disturbing the root. My new method of direct seeding carrots can be found here.

Did you know that carrot tops are edible? Evidently carrot top pesto is a thing.

I’ve tried to grow cumin on numerous occasions (it’s my favorite spice), with little success. I get low germination, slow growth, and next to no harvest. It’s just not suited for my climate. I’ve had better luck in the last few years with fennel.

This year’s Fennel harvest.

Lovage is a very strongly celery flavored perennial herb with hollow stems. I’ve known people to use the stems as straws in a bloody Mary. You can also dice it an use it in recipes. But its very strong. Because raw celery has always been a challenge to my taste buds, I rarely ever harvested my lovage, even though I kept one going for years and years. I’ve heard that the seeds of lovage can be ground and used as “celery seed” in spice blends. I just kept it around for the beneficial insects. It did send up a big seed stalk every year. The plant I had succumbed to an unceremonial transplanting and then probably not enough water a few years ago, and I need to restart a new one from seed this spring.

So, as I look forward to spring gardening in 2021, I’ll be planting more plants from this family. In fact, there might be some dill, cilantro and parsley germinating out there right now!

© 2021 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from being ready to start any seeds, but have our seeds ordered and are looking to the future, happy that 2020 is in our rear view mirror.