Urban Gardener: High and mighty

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The Independent Online

From the quiet subtlety of anthriscus to the ballsy arrogance of angelica, apiaceae/umbelliferae are a valuable genus of plants, whether it's a delicate touch you're looking for or pure drama. Their ability to exploit light and space sets them apart from other plants, each umbel a myriad of tiny single flowers pooling their resources for the collective good.

Just a few weeks ago the Cow parsley tribe signalled the start of summer. Myrrhis odorata, chaerophyllum and the aforementioned anthriscus provided the understorey while the more forceful angelica towered over everything in triumphant exuberance. Soon the outlawed Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), monster of the umbellifer world, will trump everything in its wake and can often be seen poking its head above hoardings on wasteland with a simple message: "I'm back."

It's impossible not to be in awe of the larger umbellifers that capture your imagination from the minute the clenched bud (like an imploded balloon) begins to unfold its miracle of packaging. Angelica and hogweed may be thugs but can charge the garden with energy quite unlike anything else. An alternative to these is Peucedanaum verticillare, not quite as big (around 1.8m) but the reddish stems and yellow-green umbels are more attractive and it doesn't give you the blisters that the hogweed would if you touched the sap. Annoyingly I've never had much luck with it as slugs always cut short its progress at home but one day I'll find a client with the right conditions (moist rich soil) for it to get a good head start and space to plant a colony of them for more impact.

Of the smaller umbellifers, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' (60cm) has become a designer's staple since perennials became popular. They are, perhaps, the most delicate of all. While the foliage should remain for summer occasionally they'll die back leaving gaps for other plants to fill, by which time the nomadic seed will have found new territory to cast its spell next season. Some seedlings revert back to plain green so weeding these out will perpetuate the brooding 'Ravenswing'. Like gypsophila in a floral display, the flowers have a curious effect on unifying space, accentuating movement. The haze-like diffusion of pink-tinged white has an almost hypnotic effect, especially at night when florets, despite their size still pack enough luminosity to keep a garden alive at twilight.

At Chelsea we used Baltic parsley, Cenolophium denudatum (1m), for its fern-like foliage in the shade of amelanchiers. It normally flowers from mid to late summer but without too much forcing ours were at that magical stage where the umbels were green-going-white adding a useful tone to the understated greenness at the back of the garden while carrying that potent air of expectation that can only be captured by an unopened bloom. This is perhaps the most useful umbellifer in the urban garden for, while they were quick to droop at Chelsea in their pots without water, the plant withstands dry shade very well once established and attracts insects to boot. Selenium wallichianum is another plant that, once established, can look stunning in a border growing to a versatile mid-height of 1.2m. The arching foliage, finer and growing in mounds, are justification enough for using this plant but the added bonus of white umbels in July and August is striking in a border where a backdrop of darker green (yew hedge or miscanthus) lets it take more of the limelight.

Meanwhile at the plot, after four weeks of absence, I'm delighted to see the vegetable side of the Umbellifer family emerging from an alarming blanket of bindweed and couch. Dots of fennel will soon be attracting hoverflies galore, lovage has risen from the dead and a handful of last year's late parsnips want to flower and set seed. A letter from the council may well be imminent.