Queen Anne's Lace
(This column was first published in the August 8, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)
Gone are the lovely pink and purple flowers of dame's rocket but they have now been replaced across the countryside by thousands of white doilies atop two-foot stems. Those are the blossoms of the wildflower known most often as Queen's Anne's lace. Botanists call it wild carrot.
Ray Laurance has written with poetic accuracy of these lovely flowers:
Gauzy gowned in fairy network
And caps of finest lace,
Dames colonial of the roadside
In the summer find a place
In nature's glad procession.
As I write, I am looking at a flower head randomly chosen from hundreds in a field at the end of my street. I've never examined one closely before and I'm amazed at how complex is what I have always considered a single blossom. Pick one yourself and explore it with me.
Notice how the main stem separates to lead to about forty groups of florets and how each of those forty groups is further divided into about thirty individual blossoms. Simple arithmetic suggests then that each flower head includes over a thousand of those tiny flowers. Notice too how the petals around the edge of the umbel are larger, those toward the center so minute as to be indistinguishable. And look for a single purple flower in the very center of the display. Next look under the flower head to see the pitchfork-like branchlets below the crown. Notice too the slightly hairy main stem and the fernlike rosette leaves. Finally, examine more closely one of those forty small groups. If you are able to distinguish an individual flower, you'll see it has five mitten-like petals. Then look with still more care to see the miniature stamens pointing up like butterfly antennae and topped with tiny globes.
This plant's regal name is said to derive from Queen Anne, ruler of England from 1702 to 1714. She is said to have challenged her ladies-in-waiting to see who could make lace as beautiful as that of the wild carrot. Subordinates don't best queens in such contests and the wildflower was named for her majesty's winning entry. Some even claim that, as the queen embroidered, she pricked her finger and a drop of blood fell on the middle of her doily matching that royal purple spot in the middle of the flower.
If you walk through a field of Queen Anne's lace, you'll soon observe that all this decoration is rewarded. Entomologists tell us that over sixty kinds of insects visit these flowers. In addition to bees, flies, wasps and beetles, the handsome black swallowtail butterfly also loves these wildflowers and you can search for their chrysalides there. It is probably not just the flower's brilliant white that attracts all these insects. The plant has a rather pungent smell that Don and Lillian Stokes describe as "a mixture of sweet perfume and the smell of rubber tires."
This plant's other name, wild carrot, is botanically appropriate because it is the same species as our domestic carrot. The root of the wild variety is, however, nothing like the plump orange vegetable that horticulture has developed. Instead it is very long, thin, hard and whitish. It has a strong aromatic smell and a disagreeable acrid taste. This last characteristic leads dairy farmers to name this plant "devil's plague" for it can taint the milk of cows that eat it. Because its root goes so deep, farmers also find it difficult to eliminate from an infested field.
It is also called "bird's nest" or "crow's nest" because the flower umbels curl up nest-like after the flowers are pollinated and the seeds begin to form. You can harvest seeds in winter simply by shaking those nests. You'll find then that they have a pleasant carrot taste. Various teas are made from the whole plant or from its roots or seeds and they are said to provide the usual litany of folk cures for such things as hiccough, dysentery, kidney diseases, bladder infections, chronic cough and flatulence. Mulled in wine the seeds were at one time even said to serve as both love potion and contraceptive.
If you decide to experiment, however, I advise caution. Wild carrot has some deadly relatives. You may recall that Socrates was poisoned with hemlock and several hemlock flowers that occur here appear quite similar to Queen Anne's lace. In particular, poison hemlock, has been described as "one of the most poisonous plants in the world."
Two identification tests will assure you that you are dealing with wild carrot. Look for that dark ink spot in the middle of the umbel (often missing, however) and those three-tined bracts just below the flower head.-- Gerry Rising