What’s in a Name?

Queen Anne’s Lace

This extremely common wildflower- found all over Ohio in the summer- has some great names.  I say names not name because, as usual, this is vegetation called various things by people in different times and places.  Let’s look at 3 of the most common ones!

One name for it is Wild Carrot, and this is a very practical name.  As a member of the Parsley family of plants, it is the ancestor of our familiar and tasty garden carrot- and you can eat the starchy roots just like a carrot, if you eat them when they are young.  As the plant gets older, the root becomes woody and less palatable.  So Wild Carrot is an eminently sensible label.

As an interesting aside, did you know that orange carrots started becoming the standard color world-wide by the 17th century after Dutch horticulturalists bred them to be distinctly bright orange?  Before this, carrots were typically purple, though different varieties existed.  This purposefully-bred orange strain is better-tasting and more nutritious.  Legend has it that this was done as a tribute to  William of Orange, leader of the Dutch fight for independence from Spain.  Carrots were planted at the Jamestown Colony by English settlers in 1609.

Another name this wildflower is known by is Bird’s Nest.  As it matures and starts seeding, the umbel of tiny white flowers contracts and curls inwards, resembling its namesake.  Another practical name!  These little dried-up seed-carrying umbels will detach themselves from the plant and become tumbleweeds.

Perhaps its most vivid and interesting name however is Queen Anne’s Lace.  This name itself refers to a legendary incident.  English Queen Anne- which Anne is an open question, perhaps the first Stuart Queen Anne or perhaps the last- was tatting lace by hand, and accidentally pricked her finger.  A single drop of blood dripped upon the lace.  If you look closely at Queen Anne’s Lace flowers, most of the time you will see a tiny purplish bloom at the center of the lacy white flower head.  So the name of the plant visibly resembles the fanciful blood and lace of the story.

Queen Anne’s Lace is an abundant wildflower in sunny fields and along the roadsides of North America, brought here by settlers from its native Eurasia as a medicinal herb.  Tea made from it could be used as a diuretic, a treatment for kidney stones, and to get rid of worms.  This versatile plant was also used to treat wounds and ulcers, and even as a cough medicine.  Perhaps its most widespread use was as a method of birth control, as documented as far back as the writings of Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago.  If you pick it, don’t mistake it for Poison Hemlock, which it can resemble.

Another interesting property of this plant is that when freshly cut, the flower head will take on the color of the water that it is placed in, leading to many interesting science fair experiments with food coloring!

So (not surprisingly), this wildflower is an invasive species.  However it is often appreciated for its attractiveness.  Insects and birds also seem to enjoy it.

I first noticed it blooming in mid-June this year.  It will be around into the autumn.  It is certainly one of the most noticeably abundant wildflowers of the summer.

The tiny lace-like flowers are arranged in intricate patterns.  Look for the central purple flower, which is presumed to attract insects to pollinate its blooms.

The leaves are fern-like, but be careful- like its cousin Wild Parsnip, they can cause phytophotodermatitis upon contact with the skin.  Yet even this part of the plant is useful– Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves.  Also notice the hairy stem.

There’s no doubt that this is an invasive plant, but the next time you eat a carrot this season, remember that its ancestor is outside in the fields, swaying in the breeze, attractive to more than just humans.