Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 13, 2014

The Wonders of Umbellifers

I would expect that most people who spend at least some time outside will be familiar with the umbellifers, plants that botanically comprise the family Apiaceae.  It is a large and familiar family of plants, perhaps most well-known for spring-time stands of Cow Parsley or the burly Hogweed that flower later in the summer.  There number however, is many and various.  To list them here would not make for an especially interesting read, but a few are worthy of mention.  Hemlock, one of several poisonous species and in this instance so much so that has a long acquired infamy as the method of execution for the Greek philosopher Socrates after he had been found guilty of “corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens” and for “not believing in the Gods of the state”.  There is Milk-parsley, a fenland species and foodplant for the very rare Swallowtail butterfly, of which ours is a wholly endemic British subspecies.  And for a family largely typified for its sometimes quite large ‘umbrellas’ of small white or yellowish flowers, there is the oddity of the Sea-holly, a species of sand dune and shingle with spiky, glaucous leaves and a spherical,blue-hazed flower-head a couple of centimetres across.

A final mention is made of the Wild Carrot.  I found myself yesterday among the very agreeable environs of the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, with its Essex Wildlife Trust visitor centre, views of the River Thames and its surrounding ex-landfill nature reserve – a thriving and diverse testament to the regenerative powers of nature.  I had given a short talk (about my book – Never a Dull Moment) to a select gathering of the Society of Biologists as part of their visit to the reserve and which included an interesting guided walk beneath the warm summer sunshine.  The grassland hummed with the music of Field and Lesser Marsh Grasshoppers and constantly flickered with the wings of grass-feeding butterflies – Small Skipper, Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper.  The air above was never long without the trill of Skylark that occur here in such numbers as to recall the ‘good old days’ before their widespread decline across the farmed landscapes of Britain.

Even with all of this, one of the greatest distractions, for me at any rate, was the insect-luring powers of the Wild Carrot flowers, a quality possessed by so many other members of this family.  For whatever reason, you will not often see a butterfly or bumblebee attracted to umbellifer flowers, but to others they are apparently irresistible.  There were hoverflies by the dozen and of several  different species and parasitic wasps assuming a rather less threatening presence than when searching for caterpillars and other invertebrates within which to lay their eggs.  Even the carnivorous, red Soldier Beetle are weak to their charms, taking leave from their predatory behaviour to add a taste of nectar to their diet.

Rather like the clear waters of a weedy pool or a huge or a bustling bank of blossoming bramble, a stand of blooming umbellifer flowers is as much a draw for the interest onlooker as it is the creatures attracted by the plentiful supply of nectar.

The distinctive hoverfly Chrysotoxum bicinctum - one of many insects attracted to umbellifer flowers.  Ross Gardner 2014.

The distinctive hoverfly Chrysotoxum bicinctum – one of many insects attracted to umbellifer flowers. Ross Gardner 2014.



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