Carrot family (Apiaceae)

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Carrot family (Apiaceae)

Edible species in the carrot family

Ornamental species

Wild species occurring in North America


The carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) is a diverse group of about 3,000 species of plants, occurring in all parts of the world.

Most Umbellifers are herbaceous, perennial plants, often with aromatic foliage. Some have poisonous foliage or roots. The leaves are typically alternately

arranged on the stem, and in many species are compound and divided into lobes. The flowers are small and contain both female (pistillate) and male (staminate) organs. Individual flowers are aggregated into characteristic, flat-topped inflorescences (groups) called umbels, from which one of the scientific names of the family (Umbelliferae) is derived. The fruits are dry, two-seeded structures called schizocarps, which split at maturity into two one-seeded, vertically ribbed subfruits, known as mericarps.

Edible species in the carrot family

Various species of the Apiaceae are grown as food or as flavorings. The best known of the food crops is the carrot (Daucus carota ), a biennial plant native to temperate Eurasia. The cultivated carrot develops a large, roughly conical, orange-yellow tap root, which is harvested at the end of one growing season, just before the ground freezes. The color of carrot roots is due to the pigment carotene, a metabolic precursor for the synthesis of vitamin A. Carotene is sometimes extracted from carrots and used to color other foods, such as cheddar cheese, and sometimes butter and margarine. Carrots can be eaten raw, cooked as a vegetable, or added to stews and soups.

The parsnip (Pastinaca sativa ) is another biennial species in which the whitish tap root is harvested and eaten, usually as a cooked vegetable. Both the carrot and parsnip are ancient cultivated plants, being widely used as a food and medicine by the early Greeks and Romans.

The celery (Apium graveolens ) is native to moist habitats in temperate regions of Eurasia. Wild celery plants are tough, distasteful, and even poisonous, but domesticated varieties are harvested for their crisp, edible petioles (stalks). The most commonly grown variety of celery has been bred to have long, crunchy, juicy petioles. Until this variety was developed, the flavor of cultivated celery was commonly improved by a technique known as blanching, in which the growing plant is partially covered by mulch, paper, or boards to reduce the amount of chlorophyll that it develops. This practice is still used to grow celery hearts. The celeriac or celery root is a variety in which the upper part of the root and the lower part of the stem, a tissue known as a hypocotyl, are swollen,

and can be harvested and used in soups or cooked as a nutritious vegetable. Celery seeds are sometimes used as a savory garnish for cooked foods, and to manufacture celery salt.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum ) is one of the most common of the garden herbs, and is often used as a savory, edible foliage, rich in vitamin C and iron. Parsley is most commonly used as a pleasing visual garnish for well presented, epicurean foods. This dark-green plant can be a pleasant food in itself and is used to flavor tabouleh, a North African dish made with bulgar wheat, tomatoes, and chopped parsley.

The foliage of dill (Anethum graveolens ) is commonly used to flavor pickled cucumbers, gherkins, and tomatoes, and sometimes as a garnish for fish or chicken. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium ) leaves are also used as a garnish and in salads.

Other species in the Apiaceae are cultivated largely for their tasty aromatic seeds. The most economically important of these are those of caraway (Carum carvi ), which are widely used to flavor bread and cheese. An aromatic oil extracted from caraway seeds is used in the preparation of medicine and perfume, and to flavor the liquors kummel and aqua-vitae. The anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum ) is one of the oldest of the edible aromatic seeds. An oil extracted from anise seeds is used to flavor candies, cough medicines, and a liquor known as anisette. The seeds of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ) also contain anise oil, and are used in the preparation of medicines and liquorice, while the foliage is sometimes used as a garnish. The seeds of angelica (Angelica archangelica ) are also a source of an aromatic oil, used to flavor vermouth and other liquors. Coriander (Coriander sativum ) seeds yield another aromatic oil, used to flavor candy, medicine, and liquors. The seeds of cumin (Cuminum cyminum ) are used to flavor breads, cheese, candy, soup, and pickles.

Ornamental species

A few species in the carrot family are grown as ornamentals, usually as foliage plants, rather than for their flowers. A variegated variety of goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ) is often cultivated for this reason, as are some larger species, such as angelica (Angelica sylvestris ).

Wild species occurring in North America

A number of species of wildflowers in the carrot family occur naturally in North America, or have been introduced from elsewhere and have spread to natural habitats.

Some of the more familiar and widespread native species of Apiaceae in North America include black snake-root (Sanicula marylandica ), sweet-cicely (Osmorrhiza claytoni, O. divaricata ), Scotch or sea lovage (Ligusticum scothicum ), golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea ), marsh-pennywort (Hydrocotyle umbellata ), and water hemlock (Sium suave ).

Some wild species in the Apiaceae are deadly poisonous. The poison hemlock (Conium maculatum )is a native of Eurasia, but has spread in North America as an introduced weed. Poison hemlock may be the most poisonous of the temperate plants, and it can be a deadly forage for cattle. The famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, is thought to have been executed by being condemned by the court to drink a fatal infusion prepared from the poison hemlock. Native species are similarly poisonous, for example, the water hemlock or cowbane (Cicuta maculata ), and the bulb-bearing water hemlock (Cicuta bulbifera ). Most cases of poisoning by these plants involve cattle or people eating the roots or the seeds, which, while apparently tasty, are deadly toxic.

Key Terms

Biennial A plant that requires at least two growing seasons to complete its life cycle.

Inflorescence A grouping or arrangement of florets or flowers into a composite structure.

Umbel An arrangement of flowers, whereby each flower stalk arises from the same level of the stem, as in onions.

Weed Any plant that is growing abundantly in a place where humans do not want it to be.

Some other wild species, while not deadly, can cause a severe dermatitis in exposed people. These include wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa ) and cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum ).

The wild carrot, also known as Queen Annes lace, or birds-nest plant (Daucus carota ) is a common, introduced species in North America. This is a wild variety of the cultivated carrot, but it has small, fibrous tap roots, and is not edible. Queen Annes lace probably escaped into wild habitats in North America from cultivation. However, other Eurasian species in the Apiaceae appear to have been introduced through the dumping of ships ballast. This happened when ships sailing from Europe to America carried incomplete loads of cargo, so they had to take on soil to serve as a stabilizing ballast at sea. The soil ballast was usually dumped at an American port, serving as a means of entry for many species of Eurasian weeds, which had viable seeds in the material. Apiaceae species that are believed to have spread to North America in this way include the knotted hedge parsley (Torilis nodosa ), Venus comb or shepherds needle (Scandix pectenveneris ), and cow parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium ).

See also Herb.



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Judd, Walter S., Christopher Campbell, Elizabeth A. Kellogg, Michael J. Donoghue, and Peter Stevens. Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach. 2nd ed. with CD-ROM. Suderland, MD: Sinauer, 2002.

Klein, R. M. The Green World. An Introduction to Plants and People. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.


Native Plants of Montara Mountain. Apiaceae (Carrot Family). <> (accessed November 10, 2006).

Palomar Community College: Waynes WordAn On-Line Textbook of Natural History. Herbs and Vegetables of the Carrot Family. < (accessed November 10, 2006).

Bill Freedman