What do you do if you find a plant you don't recognise in a favoured spot in the garden? Do you pull it up (no insubordination in the ranks permitted) or do you leave it? If the former, how can you live with not knowing what it is?
Several summers ago, a plant moved into my garden, rampaged through the beds and has returned with enthusiasm every year since. Oddly, there's not a sign of it over the fence.
Actually, not oddly. It says much about my weeding (or lack of). With my inability to weed unidentified plants, just in case I discover something amazing, I discovered that this one produces prodigious amounts of seed. But even though I now know this, I still give it its head in places as It masses into clouds of tiny white flowers, on branched stems reaching as high as five feet, and creates rather an attractive backdrop to showier blooms such as autumn anemones. It also attracts lots of hoverflies. But what is it?
Wild carrot sprang to mind and I got quite excited. Was I harbouring an abundant edible crop without even trying? Of course not.
Wild carrot roots, according to Mrs Grieve's A Modern Herbal (first published 1931), are "small and spindle-shaped, whitish, slender and hard, with a strong aromatic smell". So far so good, but the flowers were wrong. Actually, it didn't matter. Wild carrot roots, says Mrs Grieve, possess "an acrid disagreeable taste" so they wouldn't have made it to the table.
At this point I found Botanical Keys, a super website attached to the Botanical Society of the British Isles. It takes you through a list of questions, explains any terms which might confuse, and then spews out suggestions of what your mystery plant might be.
Mine, it turns out, is almost definitely corn parsley (Petroselinum segetum, also known as corn caraway, and originally filed under Carvum segetum, according the information at Plants for a Future). Found on bare and cultivated ground, grassland, hedgerows and roadsides (are you getting a picture of my patch?), it flourishes in the lower half of England and in Wales, and its extent can (sometimes, as it doesn't always seem to work) be seen at the Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora.
Suffolk Biodiversity Partnership regards corn parsley as a rare arable flower which grows in cereal field margins (really, the garden isn't that bad), and the BSBI includes it on its Threatened Plant Database. This seems as good a reason as any for letting it stay, so, if anyone asks, I'm doing my bit for biodiversity.
It even might be an edible crop, after all. According to the French site, Toil' d'epices, it's known as Persil de Moisson, or Harvest Parsley (which tallies with its flowering period of August and September, though the leaves by that time have virtually disappeared) and they says it's edible, like its cultivated cousin, P. Crispum. The PFAF lists the edible parts (unspecified) as a condiment. I suspect that the edible bits are the young leaves, which are markedly different from the small, sparse spiky ones found on the blossoming plant (see picture on right and also at the Online Atlas). However, to find out, I'd actually have to eat some. And no, I won't be doing that any time soon.
But if you have any experience of consuming Corn Parsley, do let us know!