By Larry Hodgson
The moon carrot? I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it. Yet, it’s a very beautiful plant … and above all, highly original. But also rare. It’s not one you’ll see in most nurseries, but at least the seeds are widely available if you want to try it.
Botanical name: Seseli gummiferum
Plant type: biennial
Height: 24 to 48 inches (60 to 120 cm)
Width: 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm)
Exposure: sun, partial shade
Soil: well drained
Flowering: summer, early autumn
Hardiness zones: 4 to 9
The appearance of the moon carrot is so unique that it seems to come from another planet or—why not!—the moon. And it is indeed from the carrot family: the Apiaceae or umbellifers, so-called because the flowers are grouped together forming an umbrellalike dome.
Why is such an easy-to-grow, beautiful plant not better known? I put the blame on it being a biennial.
Modern gardeners are strangely unfamiliar with biennials. We grow annuals (one-year wonders) and perennials (multi-year bloomers) galore, but other than maybe foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), we’re just not used to these monocarpic plants that spend the first year of their life producing leaves and the second flowering … then die and start all over again from seed. Yet, they’re so simple to grow: you just let them self-sow!
I’ve been growing this plant for about 15 years now, since I first saw it at the Montreal Botanical Garden. It was so stunning, I just had to try it. I couldn’t find plants in any of the local nurseries, but a surprising number of seed companies offered it, so I ordered it by mail. Sowing it was fairly straight forward (see Culture below) and it grew strongly and beautifully, although only self-sowing to a very limited degree. Still, it still pops up every year, here and there, in my rock garden.
This plant begins its life as a rosette of fleshy, finely cut, chalk blue leaves about 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm) tall the first year: already very striking. The second season, up rises a thick curiously zigzagging stem and even more of those bluish leaves that charmed you the first year. At the top of the stem and on secondary branches form large umbels composed of balls of pale pink flowers, soon turning white, which persist much of summer and well into fall. One seed company calls it the Queen of the Umbels: I would certainly agree!
Like any good biennial, the moon carrot dies after flowering, unless you force it to perennialize by removing the flower stalk before its flowers go to seed. Since this thwarts its need to reproduce by seed, it will send up a new stem or two from its base to try again. It will then bloom again the following year … but if you repeat this pruning annually, once again keeping it from going to seed, the plant can live for several years. However, if you forget to cut it back just once, it will produce seeds and then die. Fortunately, it will self-sow and therefore come back again: all it needs is a bit of open soil nearby where the seeds can germinate.
Behind the Name
Seseli is the genus name and comes from the ancient Greek word for a plant in the carrot family. But what does gummiferum mean? Well, break off a stem or a leaf and you’ll find out. The plant gives off a “gummy” sap which is, apparently, edible. The entire plant is likewise edible, and possibly medicinal, but I was unable to find out much more about those aspects.
This plant, native to mountainous regions around Ukraine and Turkey, prefers full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil. It’s well adapted to dry climates and will tolerate drought very well. Soil quality seems to be unimportant: it grows just as well in a rich, reasonably moist, acidic soil as it does in a poor, dry, limy one. Avoid very dense clay soils: they tend to stay too wet in the spring and if there is one thing the moon carrot won’t tolerate, it’s soggy soil. It’s used to a hard-knock life, so you won’t need to fertilize it or improve its soil: it will grow in rocks or sand if that is all that is available!
The most logical way to grown moon carrots would be to sow the seed in the fall, as it needs to be exposed to a few weeks of cold moist conditions before it can germinate. However, you can also sow it outdoors early in the spring when the soil is still cold, giving it its cold treatment that way.
Indoors, start the seed about 10 weeks before the last frost date, barely covering the seed with sowing mix. Seal the pot in a clear plastic bag and place in the refrigerator or other cold spot for three weeks so the seeds can undergo the cold treatment they require, then bring the pot into warmth and light (light is needed for germination). Then plant out when the air and the soil have warmed up.
Subsequently, the plant will likely maintain itself in your garden by self-sowing.
Normally, you can’t divide moon carrot, as it produces only a single rosette with no offsets. However, if you perennialize it, it will divide at the base and you can carefully dig up and replant the divisions.
With its chalk-blue foliage and curious flowers, it would look best in prominent location in a rock garden, well-drained flower bed or in a container garden.
The genus Seseli comprises some 120 to 145 species, but the moon carrot is the only one that seems to enjoy any horticultural popularity.
Where to Find Moon Carrot Seeds?
On the Internet! For such a rare plant in gardens, it’s surprising how many vendors offer seeds of this plant. Enter the botanical name Seseli gummiferum into your favorite search engine and you will find dozens of suppliers.
Moon carrot: the Queen of the Umbels is a stunning plant and deserves much greater popularity!