Plant Families – Food, Medicine and Poison! Featuring the Umbelliferae (carrot family)

This article was inspired by the common occurrence of wild carrot, aka
Queen Anne’s Lace, lining roadsides at this time. It offers us food and
medicine, and is a great plant to lead us into consideration of poisonous

The system for categorizing living organisms is called Taxonomy. Living
things such as bacteria, plants, mushrooms and animals are grouped into
Kingdoms, and then further organized into smaller groups based on
similarities. Plants and animals are further divided into families, with plants
having family trees similar to ours.

There are approximately 450 plant families worldwide, made up of 385,000
different species. Of these, 17 families produce 80% of our food and
medicinal plants.

Just as members of human families share traits, so to, do the plants
belonging to a particular family. They have botanical features in common in
their appearance and growth patterns, plus they contain the same or similar
molecules, offering food, medicine and potential poisons.

The Umbelliferae family is the easiest to recognize, it includes familiar
plants such as carrots, celery, fennel, parsnips, parsley, angelica, cumin,
lovage, anise, dill, caraway and coriander. It is distinguished by the shape of
the flowers, which look like upside-down umbrellas.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota), aka Queen Anne’s Lace is the ancestor of the
common carrot, it is native to Europe and parts of Asia, it is widely
naturalized around the world, including here in Nova Scotia. It has a broad
white flower, that resembles lace, sitting on top of a tall stem, with feathery
leaves. The flower head folds in on itself in late summer in a bird’s nest
shape, where hundreds of seeds ripen by the end of summer.

The seeds and roots are edible. I like to use the seeds as a spice, with a
flavour similar to cumin. The roots are smaller than garden carrots and are
white, with a strong carrot odour and flavour. I dehydrate and grind them to
add to soup stocks, especially for carrot soup, and as a seasoning for roasted
vegetables and coleslaw.

Medicinally, the seeds can be used for similar purposes as its cousin’s
fennel, cumin and dill – for indigestion, gas, bloating and colic, I like to
chew them for this purpose. The seeds are also good for cough and urinary
disorders. The plant should be avoided during pregnancy due to its uterine
stimulant action.

There are a few famously poisonous cousins to wild carrot – water hemlock,
poison hemlock and giant hogweed. Water hemlock grows here in NS,
usually along streams or ponds. It looks almost identical to wild carrot; the
main differences can be found on the stems and in the smell of the roots.
Poison hemlock is native to Europe, it was the poison used to execute the
ancient philosopher, Socrates.

Giant hogweed shows up here in NS on a regular basis, but doesn’t usually
get a chance to spread due to eradication efforts. As the name suggests, this
plant can grow up to 10 ft tall, and spreads easily by thousands of seeds. The
sap contains compounds called furanocoumarins that are activated by
sunlight, and cause severe burns and blistering to the skin.
Most members of the Umbelliferae family contain varying amounts of
furanocoumarins, so care is needed by sensitive individuals even when
handling plants such as fennel, parsnip and carrots.
This plant family is easy to grow, and will spread through self-seeding, so
unless you want a garden take-over, be sure to trim the flowers before they
go to seed. I learned this with dill this year – now I have lots for pickling!

Join me in my herb garden in Head of Jeddore for a workshop on the
Umbelliferae family. We will harvest and sample several plants, making a
tea, and spice blend, with discussion of their many uses, plus the interesting
history of the poisons among them, with a story to illustrate how they
became poisonous. Thursday, Sept. 8.  REGISTER HERE