Carrots and their wild relatives

a complex family of plants

Species of the carrot family (formerly named Umbelliferae, now Apiaceae) are still called umbellifers informally, referring to the structure of the flat-topped inflorescence, called an umbel. The nominate example of this family is the domestic carrot, which typically has a thick, straight, tapered taproot containing of about 15% carbohydrates, some vitamins and minerals, and a lot of water (according to one source). Carrots were originally domesticated in Asia, over a thousand years ago. Parsley, parsnip, and celery are other familiar members of the family. They have many wild relatives, of which perhaps seven genera are said to occur in the Juneau area.

The roots of these species are sometimes described as taproots and sometimes as clusters of fleshy roots; and sometimes the same species is described has having both kinds of root systems. Frustrated by the vagueness and possibly conflicting descriptions, I dug up a few specimens of four fairly common species to see for myself. Because I don’t know how long or how vertical a root must be, in order to be called a taproot, here I will just mention there being a main root, if a thick one occurs at the base of the stem. Thick and fleshy roots, in general, are storage organs for these plants, a source of energy for growth and reproduction.

Out on local beaches and gravelly meadows, we find beach lovage (Ligusticum scoticum). The roots of beach lovage are a popular bear food, as seen recently in the meadow near the Boy Scout camp. In the big meadow at Eagle Beach this year, lovage plants had been common but were almost entirely demolished by hungry bears. The roots were gone, leaving a few reddish leaf stalks near the hole. Elsewhere in North America, other lovage species are sometimes called ‘bear-root’ in Native languages, reflecting harvesting by bears. My excavations indicated that lovage usually has a short (about an inch or two—just a little snack!) main root, bearing several thick, fleshy side roots, in total perhaps equivalent in size to a small-to-medium carrot.

Those side roots may be likely to break when a bear digs for the main root, leaving fragments that can regenerate; a big, carroty main root might not be able to do that, because the whole thing probably would be dug up. Various Native groups that harvest some of these carrot-family relatives take just the main root, leaving the side roots for future growth. Could it be that short main roots with storage in side roots are somehow an adaptation (in part) to the risks of being dug up—a way of surviving (via regenerating fragments) that’s not available to strictly single-main-rooted forms?

We have two species of Angelica: sea-coast angelica or seawatch (A. lucida) and, less commonly, kneeling angelica (A. genuflexa). Both are dug up by bears, which eat the roots and sometimes the lower stem and leaf stalks. My little excavations indicated that there is usually a short main root with some fleshy side roots.

Hemlock parsley (Conioselinum pacificum) that I excavated all had a short main root supporting a cluster of fleshy roots, but another local naturalist found one with a long main root. A year or two ago, there were many reports of bears digging up this plant in the Eagle Beach meadow. This year in the same part of the meadow, I found that, while bears had taken almost every lovage root in part of the meadow, some hemlock parsley was still standing there.

A field of hemlock parsley, shortly before bears demolished the plants. Photo by Doug Jones
Conioselinum root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) has a hefty, sometimes both fat and long, main root, sometimes with side roots, but I have not seen evidence of bears digging up this plant. I’ve seen the seeds in bear scats, where they eventually germinate quite well. In addition to domestic livestock, marmots, bears, deer, moose, and many other animals in other areas are known to eat the upper, vegetative and floral parts, which one report says provide a decent source of protein. Stems and leaves are reported to be a major food source for bears in Montana. However, I’ve not observed vertebrate use of this species here; other local naturalists have documented that the leaves are eaten by marmots; stems and leaves may be eaten occasionally by bears and rarely by mountain goats. That begs a question: why are there so few observations of wildlife use of this very common plant here?

The stems and leaves of sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza) are part of bear diets at least in some regions, but the two or three local species are not very common here and I’ve not seen signs of vertebrate usage.

Pacific water-parsley (Oenanthe sarmentosa) is suspected of being poisonous, largely by taxonomic association with highly toxic relatives. However, cattle are reported to eat the foliage without ill effects. I found no information about wildlife usage.

Cicuta douglasii (Douglas water-hemlock) is extremely poisonous to grazing livestock and probably bears and moose too, although I have found no reference to wildlife usage. The roots and base of stem are said to particularly toxic. (Note: this is not the same as the species called poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, which reportedly does not grow near Juneau.)

Humans eat many of these species, presumably avoiding the most toxic ones; however, some toxins are found in other carrot-relatives– Be careful of eating these species. Ligusticum roots and leaves have made good human food, although it has been used by certain Native cultures to poison fish. Heracleum flowering stems can be eaten, if peeled; but the juices of this plant contain furanocoumarins that on human skin may be activated by sunlight to produce nasty blisters. Angelica stems and leaf stalks are edible; Conioselinum roots are used by humans in some regions. Roots and leaves of Osmorhiza are said to be edible. Despite rumors of toxicity, Oenanthe roots and stems are eaten by people in some places.

Note: “hemlock” derives from old English words meaning straw or stalk and plant; in other words, a plant with hollow stems. That has nothing to do with our local tree of the same name! The hemlock tree got its name, supposedly, because of a perceived similarity of the smell of its crushed foliage to the smell of the poison hemlock plant.

Eagle River beaches

rare tracks, bear diggings, and nifty fungi

The day started well—the sun was shining (!) and the mountain peaks were well frosted with new snow. The first good find was a set of tracks in the sand that were probably made by a wandering wolverine. Certainly not made by an otter and –upon consideration and consultation of field guides—not made by a small black bear: the stride was short and the foot pads did not fit the bear pattern.

The sand flats offered little but bunches of gulls and a few shorebirds, so we forsook the sands and roamed around on the grassy berms above the tide line and through some small groves of spruces. This choice proved profitable.

As we strolled through the grass, we found it easy walking where some large creature had preceded us. We then encountered numerous shallow pits, where bears had dug up roots. The plant of choice, consistently, was seawatch angelica (Angelica lucida), a member of the carrot family. It has a stout taproot, like a parsnip or carrot, and this is what the bears were after. They gnawed off the root, leaving the wilting plant to wither beside the pit. We found dozens of these pits, each one where a seawatch plant had grown. Of course, we had to wonder what made this particular plant so desirable, and whether or not it could regenerate from the leftover scraps.

Angelica root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and so we also found many sizable bear scats, all filled with whitish vegetation fibers (and an occasional intact highbush cranberry). Now the plot thickens: in the open areas, these fiber-filled scats were attended by lots of small brown slugs. One scat was entertaining over thirty slugs, and more were slowly creeping toward the bonanza. Similar scats under the trees, however, attracted no slugs, suggesting that perhaps the slugs favor the variety of leafy plant foods in the open areas. Even so, these bear scats were clearly saving some living plants from the rasping ‘tongues’ of the slugs.

Although the understory of the wooded areas had only scattered plants, there were some nifty fungi. Pinkish-purple coral fungi sent up narrow, fleshy fingers, often in dense crowds. A lovely white jelly fungus grew under the spruces, apparently on the roots.

Emerging from the trees, we settled on the beach again, for a picnic lunch. Although ravens called in the distance, none came to the offerings of bread crusts and bits of meat. That was disappointing, because picnics at this spot are usually attended by ravens, which we love to watch as they cautiously hop toward odd food items. Instead, a friendly dog gobbled up our raven bait as it passed by. The ravens had also missed a dead capelin (with a parasite on the gills) stranded on the sand.

The humpback whales have headed to Hawaii, but we watched a river otter swim by. Its swimming motion seemed peculiar, and when it came up on the beach we saw it had a wound on its head and perhaps other injuries. But it walked long way down the beach and seemed to have little trouble walking.

This beach is a place where we commonly see otter tracks running up into the grass and back down to the water.

Beach rye near the high tide line was heavily infested with ergot, the famous fungus that featured in many a witch hunt of yore (more on this crazy fungus later).