Humble Umbels

I love flowers like these that are composed of hundreds of individual florets held in flattened cloud-like discs. Their intricate structures always reward closer inspection. Insects like them too and they are some of the best flowers for attracting hoverflies, bees and other insect allies in the summer.

Strictly, only two of the plants pictured are umbels – the dill and the wild carrot – as only they have flowers with pedicels (stalks) radiating from a single point on the stem, like an umbrella. The yarrow and elderflower have flat-headed corymbs – umbelish at first glance, but distinguished by their branched suporting structure.

Note: Click on any of the images below to see an enlarged image…

Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) is, as the name suggsts, the wild relative of the familiar vegetable. This native biennial is common in hedgerows and course meadows, especially along the South Downs around here, where it grows somewhat diminuitively. In the garden, however, it forms a large clump in one season, almost a metre wide and tall in good soil, and covered with what seems like a hundred flower heads that open in succession throughout the summer. The individual umbels are, to my eye, very beautiful. Some people may be put off by the slightly off-white colouration of older heads, but the young ones open with a pink blush to their geometric buds. The leafy bracts surrounding the flower heads create a dramatic green crown, enhancing the scroll like unfurling process as the entire head slow-motion-explodes over many days, like sea anemones dojing Thi-Chi, until they are fully reflexed. Brilliant!

Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)  The elder is  a common native hedgerow shrub. Well known uses of its flowers are in cordial and elderflower champagne, but less familiar is its use as a folk medicine, where it execells in treating fevers. The flowers have a sickly sweet scent of musty honey, and when in full flower turn the entire shrub white and weigh down the branches with their heavy racemes . As the flowers go over the tiny petals fall, snow like, creating flurries and carpets beneath. The berries follow, and provide food for birds, but to my palet they are insipid, but a good addition to jams and sauces. As a garden plant many people would choose the cultivars with golden or black foliage, and I have seen these looking beautiful, but where there is space the plain native seems more vigorous and develops a lovely waterfall effect with its weighed down branches.

Dill Weed (Anethum graveolens) Dill is a familiar cullinary herb, but unlike fennel, less often grown as an ornamental. This is a shame, as it has the same simple cultural requirements as fennel and has stems and foliage of similar structure, but with a different range of tones including pale leaf bracts and red hues at nodes. The umbels, however, are a starburst of soft acid green florets, highly attractive to ichneumen wasps and other beneficial insects which hover over them in late summer. As cut flowers they provide interesting form, and their colour harmonises well with many other flowers. Also, they are edible.

Garden yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Cerise Queen’) Wild yarrow is a common and familiar weed of lawns and wild flower in grass and meadows. Its flowers are usually white, but even the wild ones can vary from parchment to pale pink. The garden cultivars come in many arty shades – some more visually digestible than others. Cerise Queen is a fine variety – a beautiful dark brick red, which contrasts with its grey-green thousand-leaf foliage. The individual flowers within the head have a strange asymmetry, some petals being noticibly larger than others.  Some people find it difficult to grow. For some it languishes and disappears over winter (probably slugs). For others it spreads too widely and rampantly from its underground rhizome becomes invasive. Mine is confined by a fence and a path which seems to keep it in check. Like the other ‘umbels’ here, yarrow attracts a wide range of insects which feed on its nectar and pollen. Hoverflies seem particulalry fond of it.

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