Amber Kanuckel writes about Queen Anne’s Lace, a cousin of the carrot, for The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
This wild cousin of the carrot with its beautiful white flowers is steeped in legends and lore and has a very interesting history. Learn more!
Even if you never knew its name, you’ve almost certainly seen this plant with its lovely white flowers. Queen Anne’s Lace is an American classic and can be found growing wild across the entire continental United States, from early spring to fall. The wildflowers’ scientific name is Daucus carota but is sometimes referred to as wild carrot, bishop’s lace, or the bird’s nest flower because as the flowers ripen to seeds, the stems curl upward and form a cup-shaped basket that looks like a bird’s nest.
Whichever name you prefer, this wild cousin of the carrot is steeped in legends and lore and has a very interesting history.
Queen Anne’s Lace And Carrots: Are They Related?
This plant gets the “wild carrot” name for a good reason. Queen Anne’s Lace and the carrots we eat today are related. The flower produces a carrot-like taproot, and in fact, modern (and much more delicious) carrots were originally developed from Queen Anne’s Lace; they were simply bred to produce a tastier root. Both carry the scientific name Daucus carota, though Queen Anne’s Lace is considered the “feral” version of the plant while today’s carrots are considered selectively bred cousins.
If you’ve ever picked the flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace, you’ve probably noticed a very carroty smell on your hands. And that large, starchy root certainly looks and smells like a carrot. But unlike carrots growing in your garden, a Queen Anne’s Lace “carrot” is a pale yellowish-white shade. You can eat it, but it’s not very tasty. The roots tend to be tough and stringy and if you choose to give them a try, they must be harvested early in the year. By the time the flowers bloom, the root becomes much too woody to eat.
Queen Anne’s Lace Legends And Lore
How did Queen Anne’s Lace get its name? You probably guessed that it has to do with Queen Anne, but like most tales and legends surrounding flowers, there are many.
One tale claims that the origin of the name “Queen Anne’s Lace” comes from the lace that was popular during the days of King James I and his wife, the first Queen Anne, who lived between 1574 and 1619. Another states that the name comes from her headdress, which was lacy enough that it resembled the tightly-knit showy white flowers.
But historians claim it’s more likely that any legends associated with the flower refer to Queen Anne II who lived between 1665 and 1714. She had only one surviving child in all of her 18 pregnancies. Because of that fact, the flower is often associated with the loss of children.
Some believe the flower got its name because while Queen Anne II was tatting white lace, she pricked her finger with the tatting needle, causing a drop of blood to fall on the lace. This is why the white flowers have dark red flowers in the center.
In the 18th century, English courtiers referred to this flower as “living lace.” According to this legend, the “living lace” name came from a contest that the second Queen Anne II hosted for her ladies-in-waiting. She challenged them to produce a piece of lace as delicate and beautiful as the flower—but none could make lace that could outshine the real thing.
Queen Anne’s Lace As Medicine?
Queen Anne’s Lace also has a history of medicinal use.* More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates prescribed crushed Queen Anne’s Lace seeds to prevent pregnancies. Modern research today suggests that there may have been some merit to this, so it is recommended that women who are pregnant or hoping to conceive should avoid both the flower heads and seeds.
Over the years, this flower has also had a variety of other uses. Herbalists historically used it as an antiseptic, to soothe the digestive tract, and as a diuretic. Flowers can also be used to make a natural pale yellow dye.
*This information is not intended as medical advice.
Watch Out For These Queen Anne’s Lace And Lookalikes!
If you’re planning to pick Queen Anne’s Lace, learning to identify the lookalikes is crucial because some of them are dangerous. The most common lookalikes you’ll find in the wild are:
- Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)
- Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum L.)
- Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris).
Both poison hemlock and giant hogweed are poisonous to humans, pets, and livestock when ingested. It’s best to avoid cow parsley as well.
Giant hogweed and cow parsley also have a sap inside the leaves and stalks that causes burns to the skin. Additionally, even touching the poison hemlock plant may cause a skin reaction in some people.
So how do you tell the difference? Here are some tips:
1. Check the flowers
If the plant is in bloom, the flowerhead will be a sure indicator. Queen Anne’s Lace flowerheads are tightly packed with lots of tiny white flowers—and sometimes a dark red or purple one in the center. The flowerhead is also always cup-shaped like an umbrella turned inside out. Giant hogweed flowers look very similar to this, but the flower heads are in reverse—dished outward rather than inward. Both poison hemlock and cow parsley do bloom with tiny white flowers, but the flowerheads are sparse and fragmented rather than tight clusters.
2. Look at the leaves
Queen Anne’s Lace has ferny leaves, just like a carrot plant, with a hairy underside. If you rub them, the scent will be similar to carrots or parsley. Poison hemlock has larger leaves, and they’re shiny without small hairs, while giant hogweed has large leaves with coarse hairs on the underside.
3. Examine the stems
Queen Anne’s Lace stems will sport fine white hairs, and they’ll be a uniform shade—no purple spots. Both poison hemlock and giant hogweed have purple spots. Hemlock has smooth, waxy stems, and giant hogweed has stems with coarse white hairs.
4. Check the plant’s height
When plants are young, height may not work so well to help you tell the difference, but late in the summer when plants are maturing, Queen Anne’s Lace will be much shorter than both poison hemlock and giant hogweed. Queen Anne’s Lace tops out at around four feet maximum while poison hemlock can grow up to eight feet, and giant hogweed can be truly giant between eight and 20 feet tall!
Growing Queen Anne’s Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace is a biennial, which means that has a two-year cycle. In the first year, the plant displays leaves and shoots. In the second year, it begins to form clusters of small white flowers, which can self pollinate or get help from bees and other pollinators. Each plant can produce up to 40,000 seeds, one for each of the tiny white flowers (but not for the dark red or purple flower, if present—this one is sterile). While flowering times vary from region to region, you can usually spot the white flowers around mid to late summer.
This flower grows in 48 states—but it’s not native to North America. It was brought here by early European settlers who grew it for medicinal purposes, and it has since spread across the country to grow wild. It’s listed as a weed rather than as a native plant, and 14 states list Queen Anne’s Lace as an invasive species. You’ll often find it growing in abandoned fields and lots, burned areas that are starting to recover, and other places where the ground has recently been disturbed.
Today, Queen Anne’s Lace is occasionally used in floral arrangements—and it’s a great flower to pick if you’re hunting wildflowers to make your own bouquet. Just take care to steer clear of the lookalikes!