On roadsides those big clusters of white flowers are starting to appear. If we dug them up we would notice a root that looks a little like and smells exactly like a carrot. There’s good reason for that. Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) is the predecessor to domestic carrots and were introduced from Europe in early colonial times.
They are biennials (produce seed in the second year) that can grow four feet tall. Feathery foliage resembles that of carrots and flowers look like white lacy umbrellas. Each flower cluster has a purplish center. Stems are covered with glandular hairs. Roots are thick and don’t branch much. They are what we call taproots.
We find these parsley relatives nearly everywhere. They are invaders of disturbed sites. Queen Anne’s lace matures very quickly and dominates native species. Plants are adaptable to a variety of soil conditions and thrive in sun and partial shade. For centuries people have cultivated this wild carrot for medicinal purposes and it has spread to roadsides and fields outcompeting native plants.
Butterfly enthusiasts like them, because the leaves are a major food source for caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly. Other insects visit them as well. Bees drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s lace to attack prey, such as aphids.
All plant parts have some type of usage. Roots are edible when young, but once they mature they are only useful as a tea. This tea can treat kidney stones, high cholesterol and intestinal worms, a rather odd combination. The large white inflorescences make great summer cut flowers and are used as filler for floral arrangements. Flowers are also edible and can even be fashioned into jelly.
Seeds have a rather unusual property in that when eaten they inhibit the production of progesterone. This inhibits fetal and ovarian growth. Fertilized eggs will not implant properly without sufficient progesterone. Some cultures have used wild carrot seeds as a female ‘morning after’ contraceptive since biblical times. Very little research has been done on this plant’s use as a contraceptive in this country, but numerous studies have been conducted in China and other places. According to research, a teaspoon of seeds within 12-24 hours is sufficient to block implantation. Seeds must be thoroughly chewed or they are less effective.
Along with individual moral considerations, there are concerns about Queen Anne’s lace collection for internal use. This plant is easily confused with the highly poisonous water hemlock. Socrates succumbed to that one. Water hemlock doesn’t have a hairy stem, the flowers, though white, are quite different and the leaves are coarser. However, from a distance and to the untrained eye they can look alike. For this reason don’t experiment unless you know your botany.
This weed is also a serious threat to those who produce domestic carrot seed. It hybridizes with the desired plants which ruins the seed. Carrot seed producing areas have established safeguards. Trying to market Queen Anne’s lace seed in Washington State will cost you a hefty fine. There are no restrictions here in North Carolina.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.