A noxious weed or a natural gem?

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-4F53ILKq9o.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ”);

A weed may be defined as a plant growing where you don’t want it. According to this definition, an oak tree growing in your yard and robbing the lawn of moisture and nutrients could be considered a weed by some and a botanical marvel by others. Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) is in this category, an unwanted weed to some and an expression of nature’s artistic genius to others.

Nature lovers can look at Queen Anne’s lace as a lovely flower with leaves of a delightful design, but farmers view it as a weed in their fields. Dairymen despise it because it adds an unwanted, faint flavor to the milk produced by cows that graze on it.

This controversial plant is a native of Europe and was imported to this country many years ago. It is widespread throughout the United States, and is in full bloom throughout the Rock River Valley at this time. The design of the inflorescence, or flowering head, is so exquisite that it is cultivated extensively in Europe as a decorative plant. It was very popular in England during the reign of what other queen?

Love it or hate it, this plant that is sometimes called wild carrot is with us in abundance from the first real touch of spring until it is killed back by the frosts of autumn. It is a biennial, which means it lives for two years. It may grow as tall as 4 feet, and the flat-topped clusters of white, tiny, five-petaled may be from 2 to four inches in diameter. Botanists call this type of flowering head an umbel, which gives us the family name of Umbelliferae, or parsley family. This large plant family includes carrots, parsley, celery, caraway, anise, and parsnip. The leaves of Queen Anne’s lace are feathery and much divided and subdivided-giving a fern-like appearance.

If you give the flower cluster more than just a superficial examination, you will notice there is often a dark spot near the center of the circle of the tiny white flowers. These are dark purple flowers, and the curious thing is they only occur, if at all, near the center of the circular cluster of their white relatives. These dark flowers produce seeds that are sterile, and biologists have long pondered the reason for this situation. One explanation of their presence is that they attract insect pollinators for the white flowers.

A myriad of small insects of various types feed on the nectar of the flowers, and other bugs are attracted to feed on the nectar-feeders. Jonathan Swift must have had Queen Anne’s lace in mind when he penned:

“So, naturalists observe, a flea,

Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,

And these have smaller still to bite em,

And so proceed ad infinitum.”

The common or garden variety of yellow carrot that goes on our tables is a direct descendent of this wild carrot, which is sometimes called the bird’s nest plant. This is because, as the flowers begin to fade, the outer ones of the cluster fold upward to form a cuplike structure resembling the nest of a small bird (see photo).

The primary root of the wild carrot may be eaten but with caution as it resembles the poisonous hemlock.

Those who might be having a hard time meeting the inflated price of medicines these days, may want to know that various parts of Queen Anne’s lace have been used medicinally for years. A few of the usages that have been suggested by herbalists are as follows: Seeds, useful as a diuretic in cystitis, prostatitis; elimination of gout producing uric acid and stones of the urinary tract. The leaves yield a volatile oil that is soothing to the digestive system. The root is high in vitamin A and the juice is reported to have anti-cancer activity. Root extracts are said to help expel worms from the body and to be effective against heartburn and gastritis. A poultice made from the root seems to relieve the torment of itchy skin. As far as I know, no medical doctor or pharmacist endorses the use of Queen Anne’s lace for any of these ailments.

The old adage of “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is certainly applicable to this alien species that has become so much a part of our flora.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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