For the first year since we have been here the cow parsley on the lane has stood standing on both sides. Previously the neighbouring farmer, who has the fields to the other side of the lane, has cut it on his side just after it starts flowering in the belief that it taints the milk. A sign of the times this year has been marked by this spring phenomenon having its liberty, for he has now converted to beef cattle. For the first time the lanes are unbroken, their lifeline spilling from the banks and continuously along the verges.
I enjoy the lacing of the lanes and the shadowy parts of our meadows where the cow parsley thrives, but I am not brave enough, as Fergus Garrett is at Great Dixter, to let it venture into the garden. At least not in its wild form, but I have invited the liquorice-leaved Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ into the beds where it is brilliant for rising up early and covering for a discernible gap between spring and summer. The couple of weeks before and then during the Chelsea Flower Show when we suddenly find spring racing and then tipping into summer.
Laser trilobum is another delicate umbellifer that appears at much the same time in this transition in the season. My plants originally came from the wonderful Marina Christopher of Phoenix Perennials, where I have found many treasures that often fly under the radar for their subtlety. The naughty, white form of Geranium robertianum, for instance, which you have to watch if it is not to take over and other perennials that have been selected for being on the wild side and good for pollinators. Finely-flowered thistles such as Centaurea ruthenica and the chrome yellow umbellifer Zizia aurea being two which come to mind that I treasure.
The framework and loftiness of the umbellifers add lightness and elevation in a planting and by far my favourite of this first chapter of summer is the Laser trilobum. It grows wild in cool forest margins and wooded glades in Europe, the Caucasus and Western Asia. I grow it here with these conditions in mind amongst the protected skirts of taller perennials, but not so tall that they will eclipse the architecture of the lasers’ delicate spoke-work. It should be allowed to ascend through the verticals of Siberian Iris, entwine with Knautia macedonica or stand head and shoulders above Viola cornuta and Paeonia emodi.
Every move of Laser trilobum is elegant. Stirring early whilst most of their neighbours are still slumbering, they break ground without the need for early dominance as is the want and survival tactic of the cow parsley. When they are ready – for they do not flower until their second year – the flowering stems rise in a series of articulated moves. A length of stem changing angle at the unfolding of a three-part leaf (from which the species gets its name) and then moving upward in a couple more moves until they finally throw the umbel. These are green in all their parts and are as much as a foot or more across, with space in the umbel so that you can delight in its structure. The wire-thin spokes tremble in a breeze and last for several weeks as flower turns to seed.
Where I do not trust the cow parsley for its profligacy and ability to seed into the crowns of neighbours and become dominant, I do the laser and leave it standing for the duration of the summer. The seed, which is the size of fennel seed, weights the umbels eventually, but those that stay standing endure the summer and make good autumn skeletons. Laser does not seed freely in the garden here, so I save enough seed to sow fresh in a pot and overwinter in the frame. Winter freeze is necessary for germination and spring brings seedlings that can be potted on and planted out in the autumn. As the parents live for no more than three or four years it is worth having a few in hand to ensure a good age range in a generation so you can enjoy their soar and tremble always.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 28 May 2022