Confusing Umbellifers

umbelletUmbellifers are members of the Apiaceae or Umbellifera (Carrot or Parsley) family, so called because their umbels resemble umbrellas. Typically plants in this family are hollow-stemmed with flowers arranged in a central umbel, which branches again to form a compound umbel consisting of many small umbellets. Some umbellifers are fairly straightforward to identify, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between those which have compound leaves. Below are some of the umbellifers we most commonly encounter (or maybe not) … & confuse. Click on any picture to zoom.

Purple Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea)Purple Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea)

  • Location: Wet banks or ditches; Probably not found in Western North Carolina. Uncommon
  • Stem: A coarse plant, stout, smooth, dark purple, up to 6 feet tall
  • Leaves; Sharp pointed leaflets with narrow translucent margins
  • Flowers: Large umbels with white flowers & as many as 45 rays
  • Fruit: Smooth capsules, broadly oval
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Latin for “angelic” because its medicinal properties for curing plague were revealed by an angel & atropurpurea for “dark purple”

Filmy Angelica (Angelica triquinata)

  • Location: High elevation woods & balds; Bear Pen Gap, Frying Pan Gap, Parkway South, Sam Knob Meadow, Shut-In Trail. Common
  • Stem: Stout, smooth, & sometimes purplish. A coarse plant, up to 5 feet tall
  • Leaves: Pinnately compound (leaf is divided into smaller leaflets, arranged on each side of the leaf’s central stalk), with a marginal fringe of minute hairs
  • Leaflets are coarsely toothed and sharp-pointed at apex
  • Petioles are greatly expanded at the base with sheaths enclosing the stem
  • Flowers: Umbels have 12 – 30 rays & are 3 – 6 inches across with small white flowers, sometimes tinged green or pink
  • Fruit: Smooth capsules, strongly flattened, with 2 lateral wings
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From triquintate for its 5-parted triangular leaves

Hairy Angelica (Angelica venenosa)

  • Location: Dry forests & woodlands; Sky Valley Road. Common
  • Stem: Slender & densely hairy
  • Leaves: Alternate; pinnately compound; dark green, shiny, thick,
  • Leaflets are finely toothed and blunt at the apex
  • Petioles are expanded at the base with sheaths enclosing the stem
  • Flowers: Umbels have 12 – 30 rays with small white flowers
  • Fruit:
  • Poisonous if ingested!
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Latin meaning poisonous

Water Hemlock; Spotted Cowbane (Cicuta maculata)

  • Location: Swamps, marshes, wet meadows, streambanks; Oklawaha Greenway. Uncommon
  • Stem: Smooth, stout branching plant up to to 7 feet tall, sometimes streaked with purple
  • Leaves: Alternate. Pinnately decompound (leaflets are divided twice) with coarsely toothed leaflets tapering to a point
  • Flowers: White flowers with few or no bracts in large umbels of 15 – 30 rays
  • Fruit: Plane or weakly ridged where capsule splits
  • Poisonous if ingested!
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From cicuta for “Hemlock” or “pipe” (the hollow stems were used as whistles or pipes) & macula for “spotted”

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)Poison Hemlock (Conium maculata)

  • Location: Ditches & streambanks; Probably not found in Western North Carolina. Uncommon
  • Stem: Coarse branching plant up to to 9 feet tall with purple or dark spots on stem
  • Leaves: Alternate. 3-4 Pinnately decompound. Hairless. Rank-smelling.
  • Toothed leaflets, 1.5 – 2.5 inches across
  • Flowers: Umbels have 12 – 16 rays with small white flowers and narrow bracts at the base
  • Fruit: Strongly ribbed
  • Poisonous if ingested!
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From cicuta for “Poison Hemlock” & maculatum for “spotted”

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota*)

  • Location: Pastures, roadsides, & disturbed areas. Common non-native weed
  • Stem: Green, slender, hairy, branching plant up to 5 feet tall
  • Leaves: Alternate. Hairy & tripinnate
  • Leaflets are narrow & lanceolate
  • Flowers: White, in dense flat umbels of 10 – 60 rays. Central flower is red/purple. Bracts beneath the umbels are pinnate
  • Fruit: Bristled seeds, contained in a “birds nest” formed by curled bracts
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Daucus carota is a member of the carrot family. Both Daucus and carota mean “carrot”

American Lovage (Ligusticum canadense)

  • Location: Rich woods; Bear Pen Gap, Coleman Boundary, Frying Pan Gap, Kellogg Center, Purchase Knob, Tanbark-to-Bull Gap. Uncommon
  • Stem: Up to 5 feet tall
  • Leaves: Ternately (divided into 3 leaflets) or pinnately decompound. Segments are ovate and sharp toothed.
  • The basal portion of each leaflet is straightish and untoothed
  • Flowers: White, on umbels of 8 – 15 rays
  • Fruit: Ovoid-oblong with narrowly winged ribs
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From ligustikos referring to Liguria, Italy where some species grow & “found in Canada”
  • See: also: American Lovage — Ligusticum canadense by Lucy Prim in Shortia, XXXVIII (3 ) p. 7-8, Fall 2016

Stiff Cowbane (Oxypolis rigidior)

  • Location: Swamps, wet meadows, stream banks; Ashmore Heritage Preserve, Bear Pen Gap, Coontree, Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve, Holmes Upper Loop, Wolf Mountain Overlook. Common
  • Stem: Smooth with few branches or leaves; up to 5 feet tall
  • Leaves: Alternate. Once pinnate
  • Leaflets may be entire or have large, sharp teeth, lanceolate
  • Flowers: White, in small dense umbels of 12 – 25 spreading rays
  • Fruit: Ridged capsules. The nutlets are winged and rounded on each end
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From oxys for “sharp & rigid” & rigidus for “stiff,” referring to the stiff leaves

Hairy-jointed Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium barbinode)

  • Location: Woods & stream banks; Big Ridge, Bear Pen Gap, Frying Pan Gap, Graybeard to Glassmine, Tanbark-to-Bull Gap. Common
  • Stem: Up to 3 feet tall; stiff hairs circle the branch joints
  • Leaves: Alternate. Typically twice-ternately compound
  • Toothed leaflets have stiff hairs
  • Flowers: Yellow, on 5 to 10 rays. Central flower on each umbellet is stalked, unlike Zizias where central flower is sessile
  • Fruit: Smooth capsules; ribbed and winged
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Greek Isle of Thapsus & barba for “hairs at the nodes”

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

  • Location: Moist woods & meadows
  • Stem: A smooth, branching plant up to 3 feet tall
  • Leaves: Basal leaves twice-ternately compound; upper leaves alternate & once-ternate
  • Finely toothed leaflets
  • Flowers: Yellow, on 10 or more rays. Central flower on each umbellet is sessile, unlike Thaspium barbinode where central flower is stalked
  • Fruit: Smooth capsules; ribbed but not winged
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From zizia for German botanist, Johann Baptist Ziz, and aurea for “golden”

Meadow Alexanders, Mountain Golden Alexanders (Zizia trifoliata)

  • Location: Moist woods & woodland borders
  • Stem: A slender branching plant up to 2 feet tall
  • Leaves: Basal leaves twice-ternately compound; upper leaves alternate & once-ternate. Coarsely toothed leaflets
  • Flowers: Yellow, on fewer than 10 rays. Central flower on each umbellet is sessile, unlike Thaspium barbinode where central flower is stalked
  • Fruit:
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: With 3 leaves or leaflets

Photography by Ken Borgfeldt, Penny Longhurst, Jim Poling, Lucy Prim, & Joe Standaert.

Sources:

Britton, Nathaniel L. and Brown, Addison: An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. II, 1913.

Go Botany. Native Plant Trust 

Horn, Dennis; Cathcart, Tavia; Hemmerly, Thomas E.; & Duhl, David: Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians: The Official Field Guide of the Tennessee Native Plant Society. Lone Pine Publishing, p. 210-218, 2018

Namethatplant.net

Radford, Albert Ernest ; Bell, C. Ritchie and Ahles, Harry E. : Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Smith, Richard M.: Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains. University of Tennessee Press, p. 116-118, 1998

Weakley, Alan S.: Flora of the Southeastern United States. Edition of 20 October 2020