There’s little to beat umbels for adding a bit of frothy romance to your summer borders. From the stately shape of Selinum wallichianum to the delicate heads of Ammi majus, they are the perfect way to incorporate texture into a planting scheme.
They are part of the apicaceae family (originally umbelliferaie), which has nearly 4,000 members ranging from the humble carrot to the deadly hemlock.
Many of the plants are aromatic and they have long taproots and hollow stems. It’s the flowerheads that make them distinctive though, with individual florets arranged in flat discs.
Some are tightly packed, such as angelica, others, including Orlaya grandiflora, have a much looser feel, while there’s a definite spiky quality to eryngiums.
Size also varies wildly with the giant fennel capable of reaching 4m high and astrantia making only around one metre.
And it’s not just gardeners who love this beautiful family. Umbels are a favourite with insects and a great way of attracting things such as hoverflies and bees into your garden.
Many umbels are annuals or biennials, while those with long tap roots, such as parsnip, hate being moved and are best sown from seed where you want them to grow. There are also many perennials in the mix.
To get a top flower display from ornamental umbels, seed is best sown in autumn with plants overwintered but late winter or early spring are also suitable. Some will self-seed easily – Eryngium giganteium ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ can become a nuisance.
Here are some of my favourite umbels.
Myrrhis odorata – Sweet Cicely is a beauty with pale green leaves and white flowers. Add the chopped leaves to tart fruit, such as rhubarb and blackcurrants, to cut down on the amount of sugar you need.
Levisticum officinale – lovage has strongly aromatic foliage with an almost celery-like flavour. It’s perfect for stews and soups and young, tender leaves can be used in salads.
Angelica archangelica – little has the architectural stature of angelica. Try drying the seedheads for a winter decoration.
Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ – this is a cultivated form of the common cow parsley that fills the countryside with froth in late spring. Unlike the wild form, this has dark purple leaves and pink-tinged flowers.
Eryngium x zabelii ‘Neptune’s Gold’ – this unusual variety of sea holly has electric blue flowers held over golden foliage.
Ammi majus – one of the best for dainty flowers that are like delicate white lace. Beautiful in the border, it’s also perfect for cutting.