Thursday, 31 May 2012

Old Nick’s porridge

If there was a plant star of the show at Chelsea this year the award must go to Cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris. This didn’t so much sneak its way into just about every garden as proudly proclaim itself a key part of those schemes in which it appeared. On the television coverage designers like Andy Sturgeon could be heard extolling the virtues of the ‘umbellifer’ – basically a big carrot. In the kitchen garden dill, fennel and angelica all fall into this group, although it’s not a genetic classification but a description of how the plant holds its flowers; in ‘umbels’ (an umbrella-like structure). Cow parsley is similarly classified, and while the posh red version Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Raven’s Wing’ was in evidence, it was the humble species which we know from our country lanes and hedgerows that seemed most popular, and with good reason. Six weeks ago, clumps of delicate, fern-like foliage could be seen nestling on the ground, glowing lush green in the damp undergrowth where they’ve been bulking up since last year (Cow parsley is a biennial). Then seemingly overnight, aided by record rainfall and then unseasonable sunshine, the plants achieved a height of about a metre, sometimes more, topped with a froth of delicate, creamy white flowers.

Would I plant it in my garden? I might, if I had a large expanse of naturalistic meadow planting. In its favour, it’s native, and rather beautiful. But it can be something of a thug both being a prodigious self-seeder and possessing the ability to reproduce through a spreading rhizome system. It will also hybridize with other members of the carrot family, so if you grow dill or fennel, for example, you will need to sow fresh seed from a trusted source every year in order to keep the plants true to type. In a smaller garden I might be inclined to use something like Bishop’s Weed, Ammi majus, to achieve a similar effect.

Being a native plant it has a host of common names (see here on the excellent seedaholics website for a full list), among them Wild chervil, Lady’s needlework or Queen Anne’s Lace (also a common name for Ammi majus). But my favourites are Devil’s parsley and Naughty man’s oatmeal.

Adding a frothy element to Andy Sturgeon’s Chelsea garden

Main image copyright © fionaandneill, on Flickr.