Apiaceae plants are great pollinators - but beware when foraging as some are poisonous

buff-tailed bumblebee feeding on hogweed

buff-tailed bumblebee feeding on hogweed - Credit: Ed Dolphin

Ed Dolphin writes for the Herald on behalf of the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group.

Ed Dolphin of Sidmouth Arboretum

Ed Dolphin of Sidmouth Arboretum - Credit: Archant

The June hedgerows are decked with lacy white umbels, the clusters of small flowers on some of our most common hedgerow plants, Cow Parsley, Hogweed and Wild Carrot.

The flower heads are called umbels because they are held up by many short flower stalks like the ribs of an umbrella. The family used to be called the Umbelliferae, but now botanists use the name Apiaceae which derives from ‘Bee Flower’.

The Latin name for honey bees is Apis and celery was named Apium in ancient times because it was visited by so many bees. The two Latin names have been retained by modern biologists.

As well as celery, the family contains other edible plants including carrots, parsnips, and celeriac, and many herbs such as parsley, coriander and fennel are also relatives.

But take care if you are foraging, the Apiaceae contain aromatic compounds and some are poisonous, including hemlock, used to execute Socrates, and hemlock water dropwort, often described as the UK’s most poisonous plant.

Hogweed is one of the largest and most common members of the family. Hogweed can cause skin irritations, particularly if you are using a strimmer to clear the ‘weeds’ on a roadside, but it should not be confused with the much larger giant hogweed.

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This introduced monster can grow more than twice the height of a person and contains chemicals that will cause severe blistering of the skin, especially if contact is made on a sunny day.

The native and more benign hogweed is very common all around the valley. Luckily, the only giant hogweed I know of is on Core Hill and that is being controlled.

It is not just bees that feed on the plants. Apart from carrots and parsnips, the tap roots of hogweed, and its much smaller cousin the pignut, were used to feed pigs.

The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme has recorded more insects feeding on hogweed than any other summer flower. On average, 23 insects of various kinds visit a hogweed plant during any ten minute period on a sunny summer day.

If you are lucky enough to have these delightful wild plants growing, please hold back on the strimmer.