If you’ve read a few of my blog posts, you’ll have realised that I’m a bit of a fan of the Parsley family, the Apiaceae or, as it used to be known, the Umbelliferae. In May this year I wrote about Cow Parsley; in April I wrote about Perfoliate Alexanders.
Last year I grew Bishop’s Flower, Ammi majus, for the first time and I’ve grown it again this year. At the moment the garden borders are full of this lovely plant.
Ammi majus is an annual or biennial, which can be sown in August to September to give tall, robust plants the following summer or in spring to produce smaller plants the same year.
I’ve tried both methods. Last spring I sowed seed in May after we’d moved to our new house and the resulting plants were up to a metre (three feet) tall. I sowed more seed in late summer last year and the seedlings were supplemented by self-sown plants. The biggest of these autumn-sown plants are around 1.5 to two metres (five or six feet) tall. In an article on the Telegraph website, Sarah Raven argues the case for sowing in autumn – not just for Ammi. There are several other useful articles on the internet about growing Ammi, such as on The Higgledy Garden, Sarah Raven and Gardeners’ HQ websites.
Ammi majus is a magnificent but airy, almost see-through plant, which looks especially good planted even towards the front of the border. However, the plants are very top-heavy when in flower and I’ve had to stake them to stop them collapsing in the recent sharp, thundery showers. (The RHS website recommends support for seedlings once they reach 7 – 10cm (3 – 4 inches) tall; I left staking until they were more than a metre tall, which was a bit late.)
Ammi majus has a variety of English names, though none are particularly well known. These include Bullwort, Bishop’s Flower, Toothpickweed, Bishop’s Weed, False Queen Anne’s Lace and Lace Flower. It is a native of North Africa, but is hardy enough to grow in the UK. It grows well in our well drained sandy loam, though the plants have developed mildew this summer, which is only visible close up.
It isn’t just humans that like Ammi. In our garden, each flowerhead has one or more Common Red Soldier Beetles, Rhagonycha fulva. The larvae live in the soil and leaf litter, where they eat small insects such as springtails but also slugs. The adult beetles are predators of other insects, though they also eat pollen. Much of their time, however, appears to be spent continuing the species – hence the wonderful name ‘Hogweed Bonking Beetle’. (Hogweed is another umbellifer that attracts these insects.)
Underneath many of the flowerheads danger lurks in the form of a pretty little “candy striped” spider Enoplognatha ovata. Several of the spiders have caches of earwigs, presumably caught at night when an earwig crawls up the Ammi stem.
For humans, the main hazard of Ammi is in the furanocoumarins (psoralens) found in the sap, which can potentially cause skin burns. These are the compounds found in Giant Hogweed and Parsnips, which I wrote about in February 2012. It is probably best to handle Ammi plants with gloves, though they are not fleshy and you’d have to cut or crush them to release the sap. According to Wikipedia, the plants were used as a treatment for skin diseases in Ancient Egypt and are nowadays used in the treatment of vitiligo and psoriasis.
There are other species of Ammi, including Ammi visnaga, which is similar to Ammi majus but a bit shorter. I bought one in a pot in 2012 and it was very pretty but it didn’t self-seed in our previous garden, probably because it was too shady and wet in winter.