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THROUGH THE WOODS: Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne’s lace. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ALONG ROADSIDES AND ALMOST ANY SUNNY PLACE grows a beautiful flower, Queen Anne’s lace. Its snowy white flowers are particularly striking when paired in the wild with lovely blue chicory flowers. It is thought that Queen Anne’s lace is the ancestor of our cultivated garden carrot, so is also called wild carrot, and the feathery green leaves of each are quite similar. Its scientific name is Daucus carota and it is a biennial herb that comes to us from Eurasia.

The forming flowers can have a pink color and are cup-like in form, so they may also be referred to as bird’s nest plants. As the flower opens it flattens out to an umbel (flower head) of many tiny white flowers that often have a central cluster of dark red or purple flowers. This cluster may appear as a black dot from a distance. The plant can grow up to five feet tall and the flowers are about 4-5 inches in diameter. As the flowers age, they turn brown and curl inward to form an upward thrust “fist” of many seeds. Eventually, these “fists” may detach and become small “tumbleweeds”, helping to disperse the seeds.

If you amble along a roadside and really take a good look at the white flowers there are no two alike. Some are very flat, some dome-shaped, and some flowers are densely packed in the umbel, while others are more open and lacy. Some umbels have a spiral pattern of flowers. Insects are attracted to them and seem to go to the central purple flowers when they are present. This may explain the development of this feature. These central flowers are too small for us to separate out a distinctive scent, but the crushed flower and leaves smell like carrots.

The flower’s name comes from Queen Anne of England, wife of King James. The queen was an expert lace maker. Legend says she pricked her finger and the drop of blood that fell produced the dark spot at the center of the flower. The seeds have been used for birth control since the time of Hippocrates, more than 2,000 years ago. Studies show some truth in this. They may inhibit the implantation of a fetus, or change hormone levels, but results have been variable. They are also used as a diuretic and stimulants and are thought to cure cystitis.

We often use the wildflowers in pretty bouquets that last for a day or two. Some seed companies have offered an annual heirloom variety, a distant look-alike relative of wild Queen Anne’s lace for gardens, which is supposed to make an excellent cutting flower. It hardly seems worth planting with the abundance of the wild plant.

The Victorians had a language of flowers, or floriography, which was conveyed through small beribboned and decorated, bunches of flowers called Tussie-Mussies. Each flower had a meaning, so these nosegays could be decoded to learn the intentions and feelings of another person without having actually to speak with them. We still use red roses to send love. My mother buried a sprig of rosemary with my father for remembrance. Hydrangeas show heartlessness and violets faithfulness. To the Victorians, Queen Anne’s lace meant sanctuary, which seems a fitting meaning for this lovely flower.


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