Umbelliferae: The Parsley Family

          The plant family Umbelliferae is characterized for the shape of its flowers being compared to a parasol shaped cluster.  Umbellula is the Latin word meaning “little shade,” hence the flowers looking like umbrellas.  The Umbelliferae family is also known as the Apiacea family, which is used interchangeably.  This plant family is so interesting in fact, that they were the first plant family to be acknowledged and classified by botanists of the sixteenth century (Arcadian Archives, 1999). 

       There are about 3,000 species of Umbelliferae stemming from 300 genera.  This plant family seems to be distributed everywhere, although they generally prefer temperate regions (Systematics of Apiacea, 2003).  About 2,500 of the 3,000 species thrive in the Northern Hemisphere, while 350 of these species live chiefly in North America north of Mexico (Plant Classification, 1957). 

The family is cleverly divided into three subfamilies; Hydrocotyloideae, Saniculoideae, and Apioideae.  Also, twelve tribes have been determined from this plant family.  Even though these findings are almost a century old, they are still used predominately as a system of classification today (Systematics of Apiaceae, 2003). 

Although this classification is commonly used, there is still confusion within the largest and most complex subfamily, Apioideae.  There are many morphological and anatomical differences in the fruits which are quite subtle.  These causes disagreement between the tribal and phylogenic relationship of these species.  A useful tool in helping to solve this dilemma is comparing the DNA of cells.  Comparing the restriction sites, intron sequences, transcriber spacer sequences are proving to be helpful in ordering the species (Systematics of Apiaceae, 2003). 

            The family of Umbelliferae contains species that are bisexual and occasionally unisexual, rarely are they monoecious or dioecious (Flower Identification Page, 1999).  The inflorescences are usually compound or simple umbels.  The umbels are usually attached by bracts and are occasionally proliferous.  The flowers are normally small and actinomorphic.  There are always five petals and five sepals on the flower (Aquaplant, 2001).  The very small flowers are often yellow or white (Flower Identification Page, 1999).

The two locular ovaries contained by the flower each have one ovule.  This ovary is described as united and bicarpelate (Aquaplant, 2001).  The flower consists of two carpals and two styles with swollen spreading bases.  These two bases form a nectar secreting disk, the stylopodium.  The fruit of the Umbelliferae family separates at maturity into two dry segments.  Each of these dry segments opens on their internal faces, exposing the five primary ribs and four alternating secondary ribs which are sometimes winged or corky.  There are oil tubes which are present in the intervals between the ribs that are either dorsally or laterally flattened.  The stamens of this flower family are bent inward in the bud.  The fruit is called the schizocarp (Plant Classification, 1957). 

            Ordinarily, the stems of the Umbelliferae family are hollow.  The leaves are alternate and pinnate usually, but sometimes palmate or simple.  They can also be heterophyllous and compound.  The leaf bases are broad and there are no stipules (Aquaplant, 2001). 

            The characteristic umbels on these plants attract an extensive range of flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and other insects.  These predators along with the wind cross pollinate the varieties of Umbelliferae.  This is quite helpful to the plant due to the fact that it is unable to self pollinate.  This plant family is able to cross pollinate within the same genus, not between different plants of different genus (Koanga Gardens, 2003). 

            Although a few of the Umbelliferae plants are grown to be house ornamental plants, most of them have quite practical uses.  Food, spices, herbs, perfumes, medicines and poisons are produced from these useful plants.  Some of the roots of this family are a common grocery store items such as carrots and parsnips.  These root crops are produced in large numbers.  Another crop proved very vital to western Indians as it was their staple food.  It was Lomatium, which is the largest genus of Umbelliferae in the United States.  The stems and leaves of some Umbelliferae are used for food, such as celery, angelica and lovage.  Parsley, fennel and chervil are very popular herbs used in cooking.  The fruits and seeds are able to essential oils and spices.  Some of these include coriander, dill, cumin, caraway and anise.  Hemlock is one of the poisonous species in this plant family.  On a historical note, it is thought that hemlock caused the death of Socrates.  His herbalist specifically told him that hemlock would put a stop to all of his lustful thoughts.  The herbalist was most likely correct as this plant put a stop to all thinking.  The reason hemlock is poisonous is because it contains cocaine (Arcadian Archives, 1999). 

            These annual or perennial herbs are just as diverse in their physical appearance as in their uses.  The Umbelliferae family carries economic and agricultural importance.  Easily identified by their characteristic umbel flower head, these species hold the interest of many botanists. 

For more pictures or a description, click on:
Food and Herbs   Queen Anne's Lace    Rattlesnake Master



Picture Courtesy of

Other Links and Sources

Camburn Prairie            Trees                Orchids            Web Authors              Quiz             Links & Sources