Queen Anne’s lace, a paradox in nature

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118719949223015.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A closeup of the flowering head of the wild carrot.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11871995305404.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A field of Queen Anne’s lace adjacent to Riverside in Loves Park.‘);

As we wander around the Rock River Valley in mid-summer, we notice that almost every undeveloped or non-farmed area is covered in white. The white comes from the flowers of the plant named Daucus carota or Queen Anne’s lace. In some areas, the plants are so dense the landscape appears to have been covered by a recent snowfall.

A weed may be defined as a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. By this loose definition, a maple tree growing in your front yard could be considered a weed if the roots of the tree were sapping the moisture required to keep your grass green. On the other hand, the maple would be considered by most to be a very desirable plant. Queen Anne’s lace fits into this category of both desirable and/or undesirable

Nature lovers look at Queen Anne’s lace as a beautiful flowering plant with flowers and leaves of a delightful, exquisite design. Farmers, on the other hand, consider it to be an obnoxious weed that must be removed from their fields before crop planting. Dairy farmers, in particular, despise Queen Anne because if their cows feed upon it, a faint, foreign flavor is added to the milk.

This controversial plant is not a native to the United States but was imported from Europe many years ago. Having no natural enemies, it spread far and wide and is now found throughout the United States. The artistic design of the inflorescence or flowering head is so unique it is extensively cultivated in Europe as a decorative plant. It was very popular in England during the reign of guess which queen.

Love it or hate it, this plant is sometimes called wild carrot and 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 reach a height of 4 feet if the ground is fertile, and the flat-topped clusters of tiny, white five-petaled flowers may be from 2 to 4 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 family includes Queen Anne’s lace, of course, and also carrots, parsley, celery, anise, parsnip, and others. The leaves of Queen Anne’s lace are delicate and feathery and are divided and subdivided, giving a fernlike appearance.

If you give the tiny flowers a more than superficial examination, you will note that there is often a dark spot near the center of the circle of white flowers. These spots are dark purple flowers, and the curious thing is they only occur near the center of the circular cluster of white flowers. These dark flowers produce only sterile seeds, and botanists have attempted to explain this phenomenon by suggesting the dark spots attract insect pollinators for the fertile 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. Naturalists and students making an insect collection know to sweep their collecting net through the flowering head of Queen Anne’s to collect specimens of many types.

The common garden variety of the yellow carrot that goes on our tables is a direct descendent of the wild carrot or Queen Anne’s lace. The primary root of the wild carrot may be eaten but with caution as it resembles the poisonous hemlock root.

Those who are stunned and outraged by the criminal prices 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 suggested usages are as follows: Seeds as a diuretic in cystitis, prostatitis, elimination of gout-causing uric acid, and the elimination of stones from the urinary tract. The leaves yield a volatile oil that is soothing to the digestive tract. The root is supposed to help one with heartburn and gastritis. A root extract is suggested for expelling worms from the body, and a root poultice is said to relieve itchy skin.

As far as I know, no physician or pharmacist endorses the use of extract 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.

from the Aug 15-21, 2007, issue

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