Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Umbrella Family

All over the backyard tall swaying clumps of Queen Anne's Lace are going to seed, thickened blossoms drooping earthward with their load of raspy pips.

About three years ago, along a country lane near the coast, I gathered a lot of seeds from these ubiquitous wildflowers and flung them around in our yard. They are biennials, evidently, and take some time to get going, but once established have no trouble holding their own and might even take over if not restrained.

Despite invasive tendencies they are welcome here because of their delicate lacy beauty at all stages of development and their ability to attract beneficial insects like lady bugs and tiny wasps.

Legend has it that someone named Anne known for her lace-making skill -- perhaps Good Queen Anne of England or Saint Anne, the mother of Mary and patron saint of lace-makers -- pricked her finger while making her famous lace. A single drop of blood fell on her handiwork and is memorialized in the tiny purple floret found at the center of some of the doily-like blossoms of her namesake flower.

Whatever the story may be, our wildflower "meadow" is an important part of the garden.

A close cousin of Queen Anne's Lace is the fennel that has been growing wild in this yard since before we moved in almost twenty years ago. Several stands of eight foot tall hollow stalks are bending under the weight of their airy grey-green disks of seed.

In one corner of the yard a lone parsley plant stands tall, offering up small plates of tiny brown seeds not heavy enough to bend the thin stalks.

Parsley, fennel, and Queen Anne's Lace are the current local representatives of the huge family of umbelliferae, a term derived from the same root as "umbrella" -- perhaps, and this is just a guess, because of the shape of the flowers. The family includes carrots, celery, cilantro, and the dread poison hemlock. Don't ever mistake the hemlock plant for wild carrot, children.

I plan to gather some parsley seed for planting next year and let the other plants come up where they will, within reason of course.

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