Constance’s spring parsley — March 2011

Spring Parsley

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Spring Parsley Flowers

Spring Parsley Fruit

Be sure to look carefully when you’re out walking in the late winter and you might just spot flat clusters of white and purple flowers on the very small plant Constance’s spring parsley. It is very likely the earliest native plant to bloom on the Preserve and this year I found it in flower within 100 feet of my front door on February 25. Constance’s spring parsley is also known by the names wide-winged spring parsley, Lincoln’s spring parsley, and wafer parsnip. Its scientific name is Cymopterus constancei. The name Cymopterus refers to the wings present on surface of the fruit and is derived from two Greek words; kyma meaning bud or sprout, and pteron meaning wing. Plants in this genus are commonly called spring parsleys. The specific name honors the American botanist Lincoln Constance (1909 – 2001), a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley and a widely recognized expert on the parsley (or carrot) family.

Constance’s spring parsley is a low growing herbaceous perennial that is typically found in open areas of woodlands. This small plant produces a taproot that may be several inches long, the lower half of which is often enlarged. Each plant produces only a few stems that may bear one or two leaves but are usually leafless. Most of the leaves are basal (not attached to an upright stem) with the largest leaves growing only 4 - 6 inches long. The leaves are light gray-green in color, somewhat fleshy, and divided many times into leaflets that in turn are divided into sub leaflets giving the leaves a distinctive fern-like appearance. The leaf stalks (petioles) are also fleshy and U-shaped in cross section.

Clusters of white and purple flowers appear from February through early April on short stalks growing from the center of the plant. Each floral stalk has several branches arising from the same point of the stalk like the ribs of an umbrella. Botanists call this type of inflorescence (cluster of flowers) an umbel. Constance’s spring parsley has compound umbels (like most members of the parsley family) because each “rib” gives rise to a few additional branches that ultimately bear the flowers. Modified leaves called bracts arise at the branch points and the shape and number of veins on each bract are useful characteristics in distinguishing between different species of Cymopterus. The floral bracts of Cymopterus constancei are white, paper thin, relatively broad, and have several green or purple veins. Each of the tiny flowers enclosed by the bracts has five very small sepals, five petals, five stamens with purple anthers, and a central pistil. As the fruits develop the floral stalk elongates somewhat and the wings grow outward from the fruit wall. When mature, the fruit wall dries and splits, releasing two relatively large seeds.

The parsley family, Apiaceae, also known by its former name Umbelliferae, is characterized by compound umbels and hollow flower stalks. Many plants in this family produce rich, volatile oils, a number of which are useful culinary herbs and/or vegetables: anise, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, parsley, and parsnip. A few members of this family have medicinal value and indeed there are reports that members of the genus Cymopterus have been used as digestive aids (seeds) and to help urinary infections (leaves). All parts of spring parsley plants are said to be edible. A few members of the parsley family are poisonous one of which, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), is native to New Mexico but as far as I know is not present on the Preserve. It produces convulsions and is reported to be the deadliest plant in North America. Another poisonous member of the family, poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) also grows in New Mexico but is not a native plant and is on the official state noxious weed list. Ingestion results in paralysis and this is the poison reputedly taken by Socrates (note that poison hemlock is an entirely different plant from the evergreen hemlock tree).

With 36 genera growing in New Mexico (and 434 worldwide) the Apiaceae is a relatively large and significant plant family. Of the 156 plant families represented in New Mexico, it ranks fifth based on the number of genera. And with 18 native species of Cymopterus in New Mexico, spring parsleys are our most diverse genus within the parsley family. In my opinion, we are fortunate to have Constance’s spring parsley on the Preserve as a delicate, but very definitive harbinger of spring.

© 2011 Jerry Melaragno

Printable flora essay here.

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