By Kathleen M. Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
When I was a little girl, and found that the beautiful flower at the side of the road was called, “Queen Anne’s Lace,” I had two pressing questions:
- How was I going to get a princess gown made out of those blossoms, and
- Who the heck was Queen Anne?
I have never found an answer to the first question. But, the answer to the second question is this: I still don’t know.
Two theories exist. Daucus carota (wild carrot) was introduced to North America by European settlers. Britain had two queens named Anne around the time its settlers were arriving in North America. Anne of Denmark was the consort of James I of England (James VI of Scotland), after whom Jamestown was named. Their granddaughter, Queen Anne, reigned at the time of the settlement of Williamsburg. Both presided over courts that were lavish in their use of lace. And Queen Anne’s lace does look just like a circlet of delicate, creamy lace, with one tiny garnet spot in the center. This, legend tells us, is the single droplet of royal blood which fell when the lace maker pricked her finger.
Queen Anne’s lace now grows pretty much everywhere. This can give it an outlaw quality. Although it is labelled a “noxious weed” in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Washington, it is elsewhere getting some love as a “beneficial weed” because it draws pollinators. It also seems to be a beneficial neighbor to some food crops, like tomatoes, lettuce and blueberries. However, it tends to be a little temperamental in its beneficence. Where it grows wild, it attracts useful wasps. Where it is intentionally grown, it generally does not. No diva performs unless she’s feeling it.
Like a true diva, Queen Anne’s lace has an evil twin, poison hemlock. Just as beautiful, but deadly. The secret to distinguishing between the two? The root of Queen Anne’s lace smells like carrots. The root of poison hemlock smells disgusting. But don’t be too familiar with Queen Anne’s lace. Many people have an allergic reaction to handling the foliage. Some reactions are light sensitive, leaving a photographic imprint of the foliage on the skin.
Like the carnation, the Queen Anne’s lace flower will draw up dyed fluid through its stem to stain the blossom. This makes it a useful guest in grade school science classrooms to demonstrate how plants take in water and nutrition. On its own, Queen Ann’s lace can be used as a dye plant, giving a creamy ivory color. Like a domestic carrot, the root of Queen Anne’s lace is edible in its youth.
After the biennial plant, growing up to four feet high, has produced its creamy flat doily-like flowers, it will set its seeds. The flower, now a fibrous brown net, draws itself into a pouch. It looks like a bird’s nest, which gives Queen Anne’s lace one of its popular names. Once those seeds have dropped to the soil, they can lie in wait for years, waiting for the right circumstances to come back to life.
And what would a diva be, without a love poem in her honor?
NOTE: Another way of distinguishing between Queen Anne’s Lace and Poison Hemlock is to at the stems and leaves. Hemlock stems and leaves are hairless, with purple/burgundy/black blotches on them. Even very young hemlocks exhibit these blotches. Queen Anne’s lace stems and leaves are always green and hairy!
William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963
Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—