The Apiaceae Family

The humble Carrot is a staple of our home cooking endeavours, but it's wild relatives are among the most troublesome of plants to safely ID. In fact, the most deadly poisonous plant in the world, Hemlock Water Dropwort, is a member of this family and has unfortunately fooled many people into thinking they've found wild parsley or water parsnips.

In broad terms, the Apiaceae family (formerly known as the Umbellifer family, after their flowers) contains many familiar types of vegetables and herbs, including carrots, celery, parsley, fennel and dill. Whilst finding wild versions of these plants can be both exciting and rewarding, there are also a fair number of toxic members that can often be very difficult to distinguish from non-toxic members without advanced ID skills. These include phototoxic species, such as Giant Hogweed, the sap of which, can cause severe burns to skin when exposed to sunlight; and other, highly toxic species, such as Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort, both of which can cause a range of gastrointestinal symptoms, seizures, hallucinations and even cardiac and renal failure.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum

Hemlock Water Dropwort, Oenanthe crocata

Hemlock, Conium maculatum

Apiaceae Family Characteristics

As a general guide, most plants in the Apiaceae family will share a number of common characteristics which can help you with an ID. It is important to note, however, that due to the large number of species within this family, there will be some exceptions.

Most members of the Apiaceae family have soft, hollow stems that are often, but not always, ribbed, and sheathed, like a celery stick. The leaves are generally alternate, and sometimes look very much like a fern. Some species are also prickly, such as Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum). The flowers of the Apiaceae family are perhaps the easiest way to recognise it's members. In fact, the Family was previously known as the Umbellifer family in recognition of it's pretty flower formations. The flowers of most members grow in single or multiple umbels which form an umbrella shape. The stalks of the flowers all grow at different lengths to give the flower a flat top. Each individual flower has five petals and five stamens and are most often white, cream, yellow, or occasionally pink.

Sweet Cicely, an edible member of the Apiaceae family, is the only member Arthur and I forage for due to it's unmistakable sweet aniseed smell.

White flower umbels are a key identifier.

Alternate, fern-like leaves are also a key identifier of many Apiaceae species.

Ribbed stems and sheathed stalk joints are present on many Apiaceae species.

Staying Safe

Due to the number of deadly toxic members, and the potential risk of misidentification, it is highly recommended that beginner and novice foragers don't harvest any Apiaceae species for the table until their ID skills become much more advanced. The only member Arthur and I do regularly forage is Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), due to it's strong aniseed scent and very recognisable patterning on the fern-like leaves. This is only ever done under full and complete supervision, however, and I haen't included this species in the Find Catalogue. As a parent, I personally feel that Arthur is just too young to really get to grips with correct identification with this family and the risk of getting it wrong is just too high for us. I am very keen on saying to other foragers that say I'm being a little over cautious: "Is a bit of parsley really worth dying for!?", and I really stick by this sentiment!