Carrots and Their Kin


Photo by Lisa Summerour on Unsplash

Author: Dale Odorizzi, Master Gardeners of Lanark County; published with permission

One of my favourite vegetables is the carrot. They are easy to grow and store well in the fall and winter, and most importantly, they taste delicious, especially when pulled straight out of the ground, wiped off, and eaten.

As I learned more and more about gardening and the various plant families, I was even more impressed with this humble vegetable and its relatives.

Carrots are a member of the Apiaceae family. Worldwide, this family contains about 434 genera and 3,700 species. About 75 genera are native to North America. The flat umbels or multiple flowerheads are the best pattern for identification. Each umbel is made up of several inflorescences, or flower clusters, that spring from a common centre and form a flat surface.

While many members of the family are edible, others are very dangerous. Some, too, are extremely invasive.

Now, you might think that there are no flowers on a carrot, but carrots are biennial plants that we eat in their first year. If you have ever left a carrot in the ground over the winter and let it go to seed the following year, you will see the familiar umbel as it gets ready to produce seeds.

Edible Members of the Apiaceae Family

Most of the edible members of the Apiaceae family are herbs rich with spicy, aromatic, and volatile oils we enjoy in our cooking. They also have many health benefits. Some edible members are:

Main Edibles

  • Anise (Pimpinella anisum) has a licorice taste.
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), in its leafy form, is known as cilantro. In seed form, it is known as coriander. In the early phases of growth, it looks much like parsley. In fact, in one year, I grew both side by side. The next year, both sprouted from seeds that had fallen, and I could not tell parsley from cilantro without tasting them. The deer could tell and ate all the parsley and left all the cilantro. I guess they were members of the “I hate cilantro club.”
  • Caraway (Carum carvi) is a biennial plant that also has a mild licorice-citrus taste. It is popular in Eastern European cooking and is used to make rye bread.
  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is a drought-tolerant tropical or subtropical plant. It is very popular in East Indian food.
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens) immediately makes your mouth water for dill pickles. Its unique taste makes a little go a long way. Usually, once you plant dill, it will seed itself for years to come.
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a perennial herb. Every part of it is edible, from the bulb to the flowers, and can be eaten raw or cooked. It is like celery in texture and has a fresh licorice flavour.
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a biennial plant. Many consider it simply a dinner plate garnish, but it is rich in iron and vitamins A and C.

Other Edibles

  • Celery (Apium graveolens) is a marshland plant. Its seed is ground to a powder and used as a spice.
  • Carrots (Daucus carota) were originally purple in colour, but it is more common now to see them in orange. Too many carrots may not be good for you so if you see your skin start to turn orange, cut back on them.
  • Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are closely related to carrots. They are a biennial plant, usually grown as an annual, and become sweeter after a frost. If left to grow a second year, their flowers can cause severe dermatitis.
  • Angelica (Angelica sylvestris): This perennial is commonly known as wild celery. It was introduced as an edible but is now considered invasive in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Dangerous members of the Apiaceae Family

Many members of the Apiaceae family are easily confused with other members. Be very careful if you are foraging for food; you do indeed have an edible member.

  • Water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) is the deadliest plant found in the wild in North America. It is native to Ontario. It is often mistaken for wild carrot (Queen Anne’s lace). The whole plant is poisonous, causing convulsions and quick death.
  • Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is another look alike to Queen Anne’s lace. It is slightly less dangerous than water hemlock. When Socrates was condemned to death for impiety, his choice of death was to drink hemlock. It is native to Eurasia but can be found in Ontario.
  • Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is an invasive plant introduced to North America from Asia as a garden ornamental. It spreads readily along roadsides, ditches, and streams and invades old fields and native habitats. Although it is not poisonous, it has a clear, watery sap that can cause severe dermatitis or inflammation of the skin. You can get severe burns if you get sap on your skin, and it can damage your eyes. This plant can grow up to 5 metres.
  • Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is another invasive plant. It grows to 1.5 m and has yellow flowers. It too spreads rapidly along roadways and in fields and can cause severe dermatitis. Wild parsnip is the same plant that we grow in our vegetable gardens. Long ago, it escaped from the gardens. When the yellow flowers appear, they are in their second year of life.
  • Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) is a nonnative plant but does not spread as rapidly as hogweed and wild parsnip. Its tap root can be eaten like a carrot, but it is tough.

Native Look Alike

Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) is a native plant that grows to 2.5 metres. At first glance, it appears very similar to giant hogweed. Some people may get dermatitis from it, but it is not as strong as giant hogweed. In fact, when I was a kid, it grew in great abundance near the river beside our house. In the fall and spring, we loved to get the dried hollow stems to use as swords or peashooters. This is a good source for native pollinators and food for moose and deer. It is a perennial. This is just a small sampling of the diverse members of the Apiaceae family. Many of them are delicious, and many others are deadly. Be sure you know which is which before trying one.

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