‘Digg’d i’ the dark’… Umbelliferae to Terrify and Dealing with Doubt

Young hemlock leaf in late spring, Berlin 2011

Doubt is natural in folk. As social beings we perhaps would not have come far on a diet of psychological rectitude. We are creatures that confer, discuss, compare.

This does have to do with umbellifers. The first time I heard mention of the name ‘Hemlock’ I was camping on the River Dart with some friends of mine, one of whom was worried about the possibility of our camp fire igniting one of our nearby red-flecked, white-flowering, umbelliferous neighbours. He was unsure of the danger to humans of the smoke given off from the burnt flower-heads. I reassured him (a suburban teenager having worked in garden centres) that hemlock is a type of pine and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a biennial. Not knowing the properties of burnt hemlock, I thank Rob all the same for his distrust of me, seeing that beyond my sham wherewithal I was after all totally wet behind the ears.

I refer to this casual and (potentially) dangerous topic because within the flowering plants of Europe the umbellifers have the greatest power to erode certainty, to leach reason, to rob us of our sure-footedness. Even in the field guides of some practised foragers (or at least wary rummagers) many admit they would never trust themselves in distinguishing, say, wild chervil from hemlock. Not because I know better, but simply because this doesn’t make sense, I asked myself, Why? or, better, Why not?

For those with a basic familiarity with European wild plants, skip this part. But as to Why not?, well, part of the problem, as anyone has addressed it knows, is the sheer variety of genera bound up in the knot of the umbellifer family, and the contrasting slightness of physical characteristics whereby they can be confidently distinguished from one another . Wild Chervil or Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), Wild Celery (Apium graveolens), Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) and other umbellifers must first be deduced from one or more of the dangerous or deadly following: Cowbane (Circuta virosa), Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata), and/or Hemlock (Conium maculatum).

A glance at the Latin above shows how many genera are conflated in this family, which is both abundant and difficult to navigate. One of the obvious reasons is the non-correlation of ‘signifiers’ that hinders a flow-chart-style identification of one of its members. wild celery, Hemlock and Hemlock Water-dropwort can all be found in similar conditions. They are all hairless.  They all grow up to and beyond one metre tall and they all flower around June. That said, wild celery stems are solid, whereas the other two are hollow, and the two poisonous lookalikes are both unpleasantly scented when crushed. Contemplating the pretty much irremediable effects of the toxins oenanthotoxin and coniine, powerful convulsants present in Water-dropwort and Hemlock proper, we are spurning cultivated celery with mortal abandon if, as I feel myself, we are unable to keep these attributes stuck to their specific plants (e.g. ‘wild celery has solid stems, hemlock is hollow… or was it the other way around?’).

The aim of this bit of writing is by no means to provide a definitive ‘umbellifer identification key’. An illustrated field guide would probably be best for this, where the vital details of figured plants are accentuated to aid identification, something very difficult to do in photography. Miles Irving’s great book The Forager Handbook has a great written umbellifer ‘table’, about as good a secondary ID kit as can be found.

What I do mean to explore in writing this, is whether or not the danger associated with eating them equals or exceeds the possibility of these abundant plants being pushed further into dark corners of our understanding; umbellifers are undoubtedly a ‘tricky’ group of distinct plants blurred by our relaxed familiarity with them as significant components of our environment. If we can learn to look on them in detail and with higher scrutiny then this fear we have of them will most likely become something not exactly redundant, but unwarranted, ill-situated; it will no longer stand between our ability to properly understand this group of plants, and at suitable times to make use of them. For us to have survived as hunter-gatherers, it strikes me as logical that our minds must have been, at some level, wired for this kind of fine-toothed-comb work. Along with learning the individual specifics of each plant we are attempting to positively identify, scouring the umbellifers reminds us of the impalpable tools of our ancestors: patience; power of deduction; awareness of season and place; a methodical and persistent method of practice.

Thinking about how we could go about this, I try to criticize my own technique of plant identification and foraging. In school we knew that the child whose hand is first in the air gets to try the question: in plant identification I have to make a conscious effort to work against this desire to be right and to be first in being right. I notice I also have to play down the tendency of ‘tarring with the same brush’, as my mum would say – by this I mean, when I have recently learned to identify a plant, not to subconsciously ‘see’ this new personal discovery in successive and varied members of that family. These are obvious bad habits which need to be overcome.

Then I can think about what other elements of my technique are conducive to a good ID: I am curious, and therefore like to be around plants I can’t distinguish, just to see them, see their various stages of growth through the year, what type of ground they seem to prefer, how they flower, what they smell like. Though there’s the child in me wanting to be right about what it is, there’s his autistic brother who couldn’t give a dry fig right now about names, as he’s busy crouching in a tall stand of the unknown plants, for the pleasure of just being there. Neither child is starving for parsley/lovage/fennel-like flavours in the kitchen, but yet again both would find immense satisfaction in having a wild alternative to hand.

A little note on the worth of one of these non-cultivated umbellifers, namely Alexanders, or black lovage. The plant is hugely abundant in coastal Britain. Its bright green leaves have an interesting aromatic (if somewhat soapy, beeswaxy) taste that slowly wins you over. Its umbels of yellow flowers make it easy to spot at the right time of the year, and its shoots and roots are also edible, considered a pickling delicacy in some parts of Italy. Its seeds too can be ground as a pepper substitute. Curious for many foragers in the south of England, here in Berlin I have had to do as the Romans did, and bring my own Alexanders with me, or more honestly (and less romantically) buy seed in order to grow it on my plot. In my German field guide to flowering plants, grasses, trees and shrubs, the index runs ‘Sium erectum, S. latifolium, Solanum dulcamara’. I have never seen the plant in the wild here, or even at the Botanical Gardens Dahlem, where I go with a friend who was apprentice gardener there. In the description from one garden centre it is noted: ‘verschwindet in Deutschland völlig aus der Kultur und wird durch den Sellerie ersetzt’ (disappeared entirely from cultivation in Germany and was replaced by celery). Though admittedly Alexanders is not a complete ‘day one’ native, the evidence in the German literature points to its worth being wholly forgotten after being supplanted by alternatives. Perhaps the longer, much colder winters were not suitable for its getting a foothold as an escapee, but I do not think I am wrong in presuming that the knowledge and awareness of other endemic umbellifers could fall just as drastically by the wayside.

Alexanders struggling for a foothold on my plot, April 2011, Berlin

So, homework over the winter is to pique that initial curiosity and to bring some umbellifer-related personal research to light, especially in the non-maritime climate that seems to modify foraging conditions when compared to those of the UK. This subject will remain open for expansion, through the long winter, when hopefully my Alexanders will be sleeping a snow-bedecked sleep, furnishing me with a few leaves to keep the dream of an inspiring, empowering, bewildering season learning to understand these plants.