The wild tangles along the roadsides outside town offer one more sign that summer’s on the wane. Suddenly the Staghorn Sumacs are coloring up where only days ago everything was a sea of white Queen Anne’s Lace.
Ubiquitous though the plant is, Queen Anne’s Lace is not native to the U.S. but comes from Southern Europe and Asia, according to an article I clipped from Horticulture magazine back in 1985. (It’s one of the few magazines that prints the name and date on every page which is very helpful all these years later).
Known as Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s Lace is actually a wild carrot; a quick glance shows the similarity in the ferny foliage. Dig one up and crush the root and you’ll also smell the similarity. Until the 14th century it was mainly valued for its medicinal qualities. It acts as a diuretic, soothes the digestive tract, stimulates the uterus and can, in fact, cause uterine contractions so should be used medicinally with great caution.
In the 15th century, Dutch horticulturalists developed a thicker, sweeter root and exported the carrot to England where it became a popular vegetable. Today it’s known as Daucus carota var. sativus to distinguish it from its wild relative. John Parkinson’s famed “Paradisus Terrestris,” published in 1629, says the roots boiled in salted beef broth “are eaten with great pleasure because of the sweetness of them.” Sounds like the beginnings of beef stew to me! (Attention carrot lovers, there is a World Carrot Museum!).
Parkinson goes on to talk about the fashion of wearing the foliage of Daucus carota in place of feathers on sleeves and hats. Since Parkinson was herbalist to Queen Anne’s husband, James I, the link between the plant and the Queen seems clear. And paintings of the era show Anne wearing lace as exquisite as the flowers that bear her name.
The plant came to the New World with the Puritans. Today Queen Anne's Lace is viewed as a nuisance by farmers as much as the rest of us love it for its ethereal beauty. Carrots — wild and cultivated — belong to the Umbelliferae family, one of 2,500 species all having flat-topped flower clusters or umbels. The flower head or inflorescence of Queen Anne’s lace is “a compound umbel from two to three inches in diameter made up of 75 umbels of minute, perfect florets, each supported on a separate stem,” according to Horticulture.
Scientists have counted as many as 2,500 florets in a single flowerhead and usually plants have three to five of these! In the center is a dark purple dot whose purpose is not clearly understood — and which I always mistake for a bug! Queen Anne’s lace, unlike some flowers, pollinates numerous species. And a single plant may release more than 4,000 seeds which clearly shows why farmers dislike them.
Queen Anne’s Lace has a cousin worth knowing if you are a gardener. Ammi Majus looks almost identical if more delicate and less weedy. Though the flowers lack the dark central dot, it’s easier to grow and fits more easily into a cultivated garden border.
Both images are Daucus carota. Note the dark spot in the center of the flower. Queen Anne of Denmark
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1605-1610).
Image via Wiki.