The modern family Apiaceae is found throughout the northern hemisphere and comprises some 3,700 species in approximately 430 genera. The family includes familiar vegetables (e.g., carrot, parsnip and celery), herbs (parsley, coriander and dill) and spices (e.g., cumin, caraway and fennel), together with powerful poisons, such as hemlock, giant hogweed and cowbane. The family also includes silyphium, a species known only from records in classical Roman literature and through depictions on Roman coins; it is the first recorded case of a plant driven to extinction by humans.
Members of the family are easily recognised using two characteristics defined by Morison. Tiny flowers, on long stalks arranged like the spokes on an umbrella (hence the name Umbelliferae), and fruits (or seeds as they were referred to by Morison; technically called schizocarps) of two parts which break apart at maturity. As shown in this innovative, comparative plate, Morison reveals a wealth of fruit diversity across the family (a similar comparative plate was presented for some legumes in Part 2 of the Historia). Each fruit, shown more-or-less life-sized, is paired (one of the images shows the fruit intact; the other as the two halves split apart).
Below the centre of the plate (42), like a pair of crossed daggers, are fruits of Venus’ comb. In Morison’s time this was a common arable weed in Britain, today, with the changes wrought by modern agricultural practises, this is a rare plant. In the top right (F), is the fruit of spignel, a montane and northern species in Britain that was once used as a root crop in Scotland. Species introduced to Britain include the oily-tasting, Roman food plant alexanders (P) and the strongly aromatic sweet cicely (34). Sweet cicely, a native to Central Europe, led Richard Walker (c.1790-1870) in his Flora of Oxfordshire (1833) to imply that Rose Lane, which runs along the western edge of the Oxford Botanic Garden, is located in ‘mountainous pastures’. Fruits of native hogweed (25), a species that is commonly found near hedges, woodland margins and along roadsides, are shown together with some of its close relatives. Among the many Mediterranean umbellifers on this plate are the distinctive, coin-shaped fruits of hartwort (28, 29).
Morison excluded some plants traditionally included in the group, as ‘Umbellae improprie dictae’; describing and illustrating them, for example, lamb’s lettuce (e.g., 47) and valerian (e.g., 45, 45a, 46, ψ and ω) in the family Caprifoliaceae.