The parsley or carrot family includes ancestors of some of our most common garden vegetables. It also includes some of our most deadly poisons.
Clustered Black Snakeroot (Sanicula gregaria). Greenish-yellow flowers with very long (in proportion to the flower) stamens and lower leaves with five roughly equal leaflets are distinguishing marks. Other species of Black Snakeroot around here have white flowers and compound leaves with the lower pair of leaflets split almost to the base.
Sweet Cecily (Osmorhiza claytonii). A small relative of Queen Anne’s Lace, this one grows in the woods and bears its few-flowered umbels in spring. The fuzzy fern-like leaves are distinctive. A similar species, O. longistylis, is not hairy, and thus easy to distinguish.
Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). This is the plant “by which criminals and philosophers were put to death at Athens,” as Gray observes with a humor as dry as an herbarium specimen. Most notoriously, the juice killed Socrates. It’s a European import that’s very common in Pittsburgh along roadsides and at the edge of the woods. The plants resemble their relative Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), but are much taller, with looser umbels borne profusely up and down the strong stems. Often the main stem has a distinctive whitish bloom.
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). Also known as Early Meadow Parsnip, this is like a cheery golden Queen Anne’s Lace, with similar compound umbels of flowers, more delicate than the similarly yellow Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). It likes a damp open woods or meadow.
Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria). This attractive plant came to us as a garden perennial, but has made itself so much at home that it is becoming a pest in some areas. Its spreading habit makes it a useful ground cover, but it is almost impossible to eradicate if it gets into a plot where it’s not welcome, because, when it is pulled up or dug out, a new plant will sprout from the tiniest bit of rhizome left in the soil. Many garden forms have variegated leaves, but those forms may bear seeds that will grow into ordinary green-leaved Goutweed.
Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). This is actually the same plant as the garden parsnip, though not bred for flavor. It is often found on roadsides and at the edge of the woods, frequently growing almost as tall as a person. Blooms in late Spring. The combination of tall, thick stems and broad compound umbels of yellow flowers is distinctive.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).
The ancestor of our common carrots and parsley, this
European import is everywhere. But that doesn’t make
it any less beautiful. The tiny off-white flowers are
carried in dense flat clusters (“compound umbels,” to
use botanical language, meaning that the whole cluster
is an umbel made up of umbels). You can often find a
single tiny purple floret in the center of the
cluster. Later, the umbels close up into a seed
cluster that strongly resembles a bird’s nest. A purple
form, with all purple and white bicolored
flowers, is rare.