The hedgerows are full of them, swaying in the breeze, rocking with the passage of cars and bending at the knees of walkers, to dust their sturdy shoes with a froth of fallen petals. Cow parsley and wild parsnip are doing their bit for making the byways a pretty place. Many of the type have stinging hairs, toxic sap and a fearful stink, to ensure that you leave them there. If your fingers fall off after digging up wild plants, expect no sympathy from me. The news is currently full of horrible symptoms caused by giant hogweed. I’ve seen it in a garden, surrounded by posts, warning tape and traffic cones nicked from the nearest detour. This stuff is so potent, it can damage your DNA. Skin sloughs off in a revolting manner and sensitivity to sunlight may persist for years after exposure. Scratching where it itches in public is so unladylike, don’t you find? I already look like a troll, so I’m giving it a wide berth. Hemlock is also best avoided, unless you have a Greek philosopher who needs bumping off. Socrates stated plainly that a dose left him cold.
Umbellifers in the hedgerow
There are plenty of cloudy pillow bloomers safe for domestic use. Biennial Angelica may tower over six feet (2m) with greenish balls of bloom, festooned with bees. It has the added advantage that the stems can be stewed with rhubarb, for sweetness with less sugar. If it’s happy, it will spread by seed, in which case you should make enquiries as to opening an angelica farm, when you corner the market. A. gigas is the burgundy coloured variety that dampens gardeners’ underpants but I found it difficult to germinate. If you manage this and you have moist earth, I may go off you. Levisticum officinale (lovage) is a lovely perennial with unusual leaves and lofty puffs of lime flowers. Astrantia (masterwort) is being bred in ever more inventive colours but will only return reliably if you have decent soil. Anthriscus sylvestris (Queen Anne’s lace) “Ravenswing” is a cultivated variety with creamy pink bracts and plum filigree foliage but again, it won’t grow well in my sand.
Agapanthus (Nile lily)
Carrots do more than help you see in the dark. Ammi majus and A. visnaga (bishop’s weed) are fabulous annuals, easy to raise from seed. Daucus carota (wild carrot) is a show stopping biennial. Who could resist a name like “Purple Kisses”, which is a mixture of crimson and white. Another annual, Orlaya grandiflora (white lace flower) bears the flat topped umbels, surrounded by fluttering petals at about two feet (60 cm) high, thus making a splash of trembling movement towards the front of a border.
Levisticum officinale (lovage)
Achillea millefolium var. gigantea (giant yarrow) is a barnstormer, if given enough room to make a statement. Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ (bronze fennel) has established well here and is spreading itself through the beds with dark, feathery, scented fronds topped with bright yellow bloom. I keep a clump by the front gate, to perfume the path for visitors to my home. Harden your heart and behead the stems before the seeds set, if you want to try to limit its range. Like many of the umbelliferae, this plant is used in cooking and/or herbal medicine. I wouldn’t collect toadstools for consumption without the personal approval of an expert mycologist and even then, I’d want it in writing. I’ll not be using an unknown to flavour a casserole or to promote a sense of wellbeing unless I truly trust the authority. In case of a mistake, my heirs have instructions to sue.