You have probably noticed Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota): this wildflower has a flat cluster of small white flowers resembling lace on top of a sturdy green stem along the paths and in fallow fields in the Park. There are plenty of Queen Anne's Lace plants in the field at the corner of Stony Creek Road and Lower Farm Road. In the midst of some flower clusters, you will see one dark pink flower. Why it is there is not known, although it is thought that it might attract insects. The common name of Queen Anne's Lace comes from a legend that tells of Queen Anne pricking her finger while sewing lace. A drop of her blood landed right in the middle of her work, hence the dark pink flower in the center.
In the UK, where this plant is called Bishop's Lace or Bird's Nest (you will find out why the latter name a little later!), people plant it in their gardens. Aphids and other small pests are attracted to it and then predator insects such as wasps and green lacewings feed on the aphids. The predators stay around and keep insect damage under control in those English cottage gardens. Caterpillars of the Eastern Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves and bees and other insects feed on the nectar. As you know some people’s wildflowers are other people’s weeds and Queen Anne's Lace is no exception. Still another name for it is Devil’s Plague and the USDA has listed it as a noxious weed. It is considered a serious pest in pastures.
Daucus carotais also known as the wild carrot and it is native to Europe and southwest Asia. It is in the same family (Apiaceae) as celery, parsley, anise, caraway, chervil, coriander (cilantro), cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, lovage, parsnip and the domestic carrot. It is an herbaceous biennial. The flowering plant is the second year phase.
During the first year, the plant consists of a basal rosette of hairy, tri-pinnate leaves which appear lacey or fern-like and which remain green during the winter and a thin finger-like tap root. The tap root is edible if picked early before it gets too woody. The leaves produce food which is stored in the tap root. The stored food allows the second year production of a sturdy, hairy stem holding the flat flower cluster which is called an umbel, in this case, a compound umbel or twice-branched structure (on the right in the diagram). The large flat flower cluster consists of many smaller clusters of tiny flowers, each attached by its small stem to a larger stem. All the larger stems in turn are connected at one point to the main stem. The youngest flowers are in the center. Directly below the flower cluster are modified leaves called bracts. The bracts are 3-forked or pinnate and distinguish the plant from other white-flowered umbellifers.
Queen Anne’s Lace blooms from July/August to September/October. After the flowers are fertilized, the now mature large flower cluster folds up and resembles a cup or bird’s nest – thus, giving rise to one of the plant's alternate names. This plant reproduces by seeds which germinate in the spring. You can see the brown fruits which contain the seeds if you look within the “bird's nest.” The plant dies after the second year.
Although the tap root is edible, the leaves can cause phytophotodermatitis. If you get a photo-sensitive substance from the leaves on your skin and then are exposed to sunlight, (specifically UV-A light), the substance becomes toxic and causes a cutaneous inflammatory eruption. Phytophotodermatitis is also called Lime Disease (not Lyme Disease) because it was observed in waitresses who handled limes and then went out to sunbathe. It should be noted that before eating the tap root, one must be sure that it is from Queen Anne's Lace and not from some very similar looking plants such as poison hemlock, fool's parsley and water hemlock. All parts of these plants are toxic to humans and can be deadly. The distinguishing characteristics to help identify Queen Anne's Lace are: tripinnate leaves, fine hairs on stem and leaves, carrot-like smell of the crushed root, and the occasional dark pink flower in the center of the flower cluster.
Early Europeans cultivated Queen Anne's Lace and the Romans ate it as a vegetable. The plant was introduced to North America by the colonists who boiled the taproots. The taproot is high in sugar, second to the beet in sugar content. The taproots were used in soups, stews and in making tea.
Our modern domesticated carrot was cultivated from a naturally occurring subspecies of Daucus (Daucus carota subsp. Sativus). It was first cultivated for its aromatic leaves and seeds, like relatives such as parsley, fennel, dill and cumin still are. Eventually it was selectively bred for a much larger, less woody and sweeter tap root. The modern carrot was first bred in Afghanistan and introduced into Europe via the Moor invasion of Spain in the 8th century. The roots were first purple, then red and yellow. The orange tap root appeared in the Netherlands during the 17th century and arrived in colonial America during the same century. And now it time for you to go to the Park and find some Queen Anne’s Lace to examine – now that you are experts!
Johnson, Lady Bird and Lees, Carlton B. Wildflowers Across America. New York: Abbeville Press (1988)
Peterson, Roger Tory and McKenny, Margaret. A Field Guide toWildflowers Northeastern/North-Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (1996)
Robinson, Jo. Eating on the Wild Side. New York: Little, Brown and Company (2013)
Thierer, John W., revising author. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers Easter Region, revised edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (2001)
Uva, Richard H., Neal, Joseph C. and DiThomaso, Joseph M. Weeds of the Northeast. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1997)
Examination of many Daucus carotaplants in the Norristown Farm Park. Never did get phytophotodermatitis.