Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Fragrant Family of Fennel

Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in seed

Left: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden; right: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in seed, Bonnefont Herb Garden.

Representatives of the Apiaceae family are scattered throughout all of the gardens at The Cloisters, but they are most prominent in the culinary beds of Bonnefont Herb Garden. These plants are greatly exploited for their distinct fragrances and tastes. The essential oils, created from a fairly large group of chemical constituents within the plants, are responsible for the incredibly flavorful and aromatic properties of this family. In addition, these properties help to ensure the survival of plants in this family by attracting pollinators to the flowers.

Fennel is one of the many members of the Apiaceae family at home in Bonnefont Herb Garden. Other members of this family that can be found in the medieval gardens include dill (Anethum graveolens), caraway (Carum carvi), anise (Pimpinella anisum), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), wild celery (Apium graveolens), skirret (Sium sisarum), sweet ciceley (Myrrhis odorata), asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida), samphire (Crithmum maritimum), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), and angelica (Angelica archangelica). The umbel inflorescence, which is a signature characteristic of this plant family, provides a strong form that holds a garden together ornamentally at all times of the year. The fennel is a prime example of this; as we allow it flower and go to seed, we take full advantage of its ornamental value well into the fall.

The Apiaceae family, also known as the Umbelliferae family, is host to roughly three hundred genera and more than three thousand species of plants. Members of this family can be found throughout the world, but are most common in temperate regions. The family has a tremendous range of habits, ranging from soft-stem annuals and biennials to hard-wood shrubs. Plants within this family are normally characterized by hollow stems and flowers that form an umbel inflorescence. An umbel is defined, botanically, as “A flat-topped or convex inflorescence with the pedicels arising more or less from a common point, like the struts of an umbrella” (J. Harris, M. Harris, Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, 2003). This botanical characteristic was the basis for the family’s original name, Umbelliferae. The actual flowers that are clustered together to make up the umbel are characterized by a very small size, five petals, five sepals, and five stamens. The fruit that is most often produced from plants in this family is known as a schizocarp. A schizocarp is defined botanically as “a dry, indehiscent fruit which splits into separate, one-seeded carpels, or segments, at maturity (J. Harris, M. Harris, Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, 2003).

Examples of the more commonly known Apiaceae seed crops include cumin, coriander, and anise. The anise seeds that are used so commonly for their culinary value are actually a schizocarp fruit. Another common characteristic of this family is the tap root, which is an adaptive feature of the plant that allows it to store carbohydrates. In addition, taproots have been exploited by humans for root crops. Examples of common Apiaceae root crops include carrots and parsnips.

—Kevin Wiecks

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Comments (5)

  1. Alan Says:

    I’m curious to learn more about the sculpted pear trees… possibly, a blob in the future?

  2. thea mcginnis Says:

    I llove this sight - loads of information, beautifully delivered. thanks

  3. Randy Blum Says:

    I am wondering if Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is related to Queen Anne’s lace since the flowerettes look so similar. Thank you to anyone who can provide any information.

  4. Kevin Wiecks Says:

    Thank you for all the comments on this post.
    Alan, we will certainly do a post on espalier techniques and medieval fruit trees in the near future. That is a great idea, and if anyone else has any ideas for future posts feel free to suggest them.
    Randy,Yes. Anise and Queen Anne’s Lace both belong to the Apiaceae family.

  5. esther Says:

    The Carline Thistle in the medicinal bed is a lovely plant, but seems to have few medicinal properties. Is it used for other things than as a purgative?

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