Dilly Umbels

dillPeople who don’t keep gardens often ask me what a dill head is. One of the copy editors for The Joy of Pickling didn’t know. I tried the word umbel on her. Its meaning seems obvious when you consider that the seed heads of all the plants in the carrot family—umbellifers all—look like small umbrellas. But she seemed uncomprehending. When a breeze blows through a field full of blooming Queen Anne’s lace, some of us see little lace parasols dancing all around. Others see only a field.

Perhaps the editor wasn’t dense but only distressed at my vagueness, because a dill head can be many things. It starts out covered with tiny yellow flowers. Soon small green seeds form, and the flowers fall. As the feathery leaves wither on the long, stiff stalks, the seeds grow bigger and take on a pinkish-purplish hue. Eventually they turn brown, and soon they, too, begin to fall to the ground. As the heads mature, so does their flavor. The flowers taste nearly as sweet and brightly dilly as the green foliage. The brown seeds take on a darker, more bitter tone.

For pickling and every other culinary use I can think of, I prefer young dill—the leaves, the flowers, the small green seeds. But any fresh dill is better than dried seeds that have sat in the cupboard for months or years.

dilly beans 1Although dill has naturalized in the gardens of friends who live in nearby hills, I’ve always had trouble growing it in my lowland garden. This year I succeeded well, by tossing seeds in February onto a bare patch of ground where I’d taken up a sheet of black plastic laid there last summer. Like other umbellifers, dill needs a long, cool, wet period for its slow germination. It needs light, too, and so prefers no covering of soil.

I’d planted the dill seed too early, I figured, as I set out my cucumber seedlings in May. The dill would soon be in flower, and the sweet, ferny foliage would shrivel before the cukes were ready to pickle.

Thankfully, a dill plant takes its sweet time, opening one flower head after another, so that any plant sold for pickling is likely to have some heads in bloom, others in seed, some as small as a teacup and others as broad as a dinner plate, with a little green foliage still hanging on the stalks. When I suggest adding a dill head to a jar of beans, two tiny flower heads will do, as will half or a third of a giant head with its full-size seeds. To fit part of a giant head in a pint jar, you might even need to fold the umbel upward—the way umbrellas bend only when they break—and clip off the bottoms of what on an umbrella would be the stretchers.

My dill patch has held out for me through the peak of my summer pickling. Most of the heads are turning brown now, and enough seeds are loosening that I collected a pint the other day. But I’ve used heads at all stages of maturity in four crocks of cucumber pickles already, and made two small batches of dilly beans besides. And still I see some yellow flowers and green foliage in the dill patch.

It’s time to consider where to lay down a sheet of black plastic, or a board, or heavy mulch, perhaps, to create a bare patch for planting dill again this winter.