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. These were growing in a clearing in Schenley Park, where they were blooming in early June. The combination of tall, thick stems and broad compound umbels of yellow flowers is distinctive; Golden Alexanders, another member of the same family with yellow flowers, is a much more delicate plant.
Gray describes the genus and the species.
PASTINÀCA L. PARSNIP. Calyx-teeth obsolete. Fruit oval, very much flattened dorsally; dorsal ribs filiform, the lateral extended into broad wings, which are strongly nerved toward the outer margin; oil-tubes small, solitary in the intervals, 2-4 on the commissure; stylopodium depressed. — Tall stout glabrous biennial, with pinnately compound leaves, mostly no involucre or involucels, and yellow flowers. (The Latin name, from pastus. food.)
P. satìva L. Stem grooved; leaflets ovate to oblong, cut-toothed. — Waste places, open rich soil, etc. (Nat. from Eu.)
UPDATE: In an earlier version of this article, we identified this plant as Spotted Cowbane (Cicuta maculata). Thanks to a question from a kind reader (see the comments below) we looked harder, and concluded that we were mistaken.
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. These plants were growing in some mushy ground beside a stream in Frick Park, where they were blooming in the middle of May.
We had earlier identified this as Spotted Cowbane (Cicuta maculata), but a kind correspondent who asked how to tell the difference between the two plants made us examine the identification again. They are indeed very similar, but here are the differences we found persuasive:
Spotted Cowbane has purplish stems or stems “streaked with purple”; Goutweed has green stems.
The stalks of Spotted Cowbane are fatter than the stalks of Goutweed.
The flower clusters or “compound umbels” of Spotted Cowbane are more numerous and sloppier (“pedicels very unequal”) than the compound umbels of Goutweed.
Gray describes the genus and the species:
AEGOPÔDIUM L. GOUTWEED. Fruit ovate, glabrous, with equal filiform ribs, and no oil-tubes; stylopodium conical and prominent; seed nearly terete. — A coarse glabrous perennial, with creeping rootetock, sharply toothed ovate leaflets, and rather large naked umbels of white flowers. (Name from aix, goat, and podion, a little foot, probably from the shape of the leaflets.)
A. podagrària L. —Waste-heaps, etc., e. Mass. to Del. (Adv. from Eu.) [It has since spread further, mostly by escaping from gardens.]
[For comparison, here is Gray’s description of Cicuta maculata:
CICÙTA L. WATER HEMLOCK. Calyx-teeth prominent. Fruit ovoid to nearly orbicular, glabrous, with strong flattish corky ribs (the lateral largest); oil-tubes conspicuous, solitary: stylopodium depressed; seed nearly terete. — Very poisonous plants, with pinnately compound leaves and serrate leaflets, involucre usually none, involucels of several slender bractlete, and white flowers. (The ancient Latin name of the Hemlock.)
C. maculàta L. (Spotted Cowbane, Musquash Root, Beaver Poison.) Stem stout, 1-2.2 m. high, streaked with purple; leaves 2-3-pinnate, the lower on long petioles; leaflets lanceolate to oblong-lanceolate, 3-12 cm. long, acuminate; pedicels in the umbellets numerous, very unequal; fruit broadly ovate to oval, 3-3.5 mm. long, shallowly or not at all grooved at the commissure.— N. B. to Va., and westw., common.]
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; these were growing near a stream in Scott Township, where they were blooming in early May.
Gray describes the genus and the species:
ZIZIA Koch. Calyx-teeth prominent. Fruit ovate to oblong, glabrous, with filiform ribs. Oil-tubes large and solitary in the broad intervals, and a small one in each rib; stylopodium wanting; seed terete. —Smooth perennials, with mostly Thaspium-like leaves, no involucre, involucels of small bractlets, yellow flowers, and the central fruit of each umbellet sessile. Flowering in spring. (Named for I. B. Ziz, a Rhenish botanist.)
Z. aúrea (L.) Koch. (GOLDEN ALEXANDERS.) Leaves (except the uppermost) 2-3-ternate, the radical very long-petioled; leaflets ovate to lanceolate, sharply serrate, acuminate; rays 15-25, stout, 2-5 cm. long; fruit oblong, about 4 mm. long. — River-banks, meadows,and rich woods, e. Que. to Sask., s. to Va., Ark., and Tex.
In Our Common Wild Flowers of Springtime and Autumn, Alice Mary Dowd describes the plant briefly, and also gives us a brief explanation of the word “umbel”:
Not far from the wood betony, on the same grassy slope, and blossoming at the same time, we may find the early meadow parsnip, sometimes called golden Alexanders. It is a common plant everywhere from Maine to South Dakota. The leaves are twice or three times divided at the base, and have long stems. The small, golden yellow flowers are in little radiating clusters. A flower-cluster in which the stems radiate from the end of the main stem, like the ribs of an umbrella turned wrong side out, is called an umbel. If the radiating stems end in little umbels instead of single flowers the whole cluster is a compound umbel. The words umbel and umbrella both come from the Latin word for shade.
Alphonso Wood, in his Class-Book of Botany, uses this plant (which he places in the genus Carum) as one of his botanical lessons:
Description.—The humid river-banks, the meadows behind them, and even the sunny hills above them, are frequently bedecked in June or May, with bright yellow umbels, which, with little discrimination, the country people call Golden Alexanders. We will suppose that our young botanists return from their morning rambles equipped with these plants complete—root, leaf, flower and fruit.
Analysis.—The Leaf Region.—After the lesson on the Cicely, the student will see in this plant striking analogies, with special differences. Both are to be carefully noted. The root is perennial, axial, branching, more woody than fleshy, from which annually arises a plant glabrous (smooth) and polished. The stems throughout are jointed, branching, with long, hollow internodes as in Cicely. The leaves are ternate and biternate, the lower on long petioles and sometimes pinnately 5-foliate, the very lowest being simple and cordate. The student will compare the leaflets with those of Cicely, and note their form of outline, base, apex, and margin. The petioles are sheathing and stem-clasping at the base, as in that plant.
The Flower Region.—The umbels are axillary and terminal.* Are they simple or compound? Do you find any involucre and involucels? Of what description? The flowers are 5-parted. Here also the calyx consists of a tube adhering to the ovary, with the limb or teeth obsolete. Each of the 5 yellow petals has its slender point inflexed, with the 5 stamens in like manner inflected. The ovary is inferior— placed below the flower and crowned by it, in consequence of being immersed in and adherent to the tubular calyx. The 2 styles are slender, longer than the ovary, and deciduous, for they are not seen on the full-grown fruit.
The Fruit is a cremocarp as in Osmorhiza, but with several remarkable differences. It is oval inclined to oblong, flattened on the sides. When the carpels separate, they show the forked carpophore between them. Each carpel has 5 conspicuous, equal, wavy ribs, 2 of which are marginal, i. e., on the border of the face or commissure. In each interval between the ribs is an oil tube—an oblong cell containing a fragrant oil. Botanists call these oil-tubes vittae. None are found in the fruits of Osmorhiza.
* Plants in which the inflorescence is arranged in a cyme, corymb, &c, may be termed the “Social Flowers.” Small flowers thus packed closely together are necessarily more attractive to insects than if they were scattered promiscuously over the plant. Besides, these groups of flowers are generally placed where they are not hidden by the leaves. So that one can hut feel that this floral arrangement is not an accident, but designed for a purpose. Self-fertilization is guarded against in these masses of small flowers by the stamens ripening before the pistils. The former shed their pollen and wither before the latter have developed sufficiently to receive the pollen. Sir John Lubbock remarks that the honey in the flowers of this order is Inaccessible to butterflies, whose probosces are fitted for deep-throated flowers; but it is easily reached by other insects.
The Name in Latin is Carum aureum. It is associated with Caraway (Carum Carvi) whose native country is Caria in Asia Minor; hence the name. The specific term, aureum, means golden. Other plants called also Golden Alexanders, with yellow umbels in June, may perplex the student. One such, C. cordatum, is smooth all over like C. aureum, but its root-leaves are generally cordate and simple, and the stemleaves never biternate.