The charming Queen Anne’s lace is a commonly seen roadside wildflower, but there is nothing commonplace about this herbaceous biennial. It has an interesting history as a food plant and medicinal herb, and is useful as a cut flower and companion plant.
Queen Anne’s lace is native to the temperate regions of Europe and southwest Asia, and has been widely naturalized to most of continental North America and to Australia. In Iowa, Washington, Michigan, and Ohio, it is sufficiently invasive to be listed as a noxious weed by the USDA.
Queen Anne’s lace belongs to the Apiaceae (Carrot) family, genus Daucus, species carotus. Anyone who has smelled the carroty taproot of the plant will not be surprised to hear about the carrot connection; the plant is also known as the wild carrot, although its root is a pale yellow, not orange.
Queen Anne’s lace prefers well-drained, sandy and gravely soils and direct sunlight. It is biennial, meaning it establishes growth in its first year, winters over, and then bolts (grows rapidly), flowers, goes to seed, and dies in its second year. Mature plants are generally 30-40 inches tall, with ferny foliage. They flower throughout the summer-often from June till frost. When the flowers go to seed, the flat, white umbels turn brown, curving and contracting inward into a nest-like formation that is probably the source of the plant’s alternative name, ‘bird’s nest’.
Queen Anne’s lace contains pectin (fiber), lecithin (a source of beneficial fatty acids), beta-cartotene (an antioxidant), and Vitamins A, B, and C. Early American settlers used the taproots of the plant, cooked, for food, but the roots are generally quite woody unless very young.
Queen Anne’s lace is related to and closely resembles fool’s parsley and hemlock, both of which are toxic; its use as a food should be approached with caution.
Folklore and herbal medicine
Queen Anne’s lace has some medicinal properties that run in its plant family, and others that are unique.
Like parsley, Queen Anne’s lace has a diuretic effect; i.e., it helps clear the body of excess fluid. This may be why it is also reputed to have cleansing properties, to support urinary function, and to dissolve kidney stones. Usually, teas are brewed from the root or seeds of the plant for these purposes.
The seeds of Queen Anne’s lace relieve abdominal cramps and bloating, carminative properties it shares with dill.
As far back as Hippocrates (circa 400 BC), the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace were used as a primitive form of ‘morning after’ pill, or contraceptive. Research suggests that the plant does indeed impact progesterone synthesis in the body.
Queen Anne’s lace has also been touted as an aphrodisiac, a hangover cure, a vermifuge (de-worming agent), and an antiseptic, but these claims are as yet largely unsupported.
Consult a physician prior to using herbs medicinally. Care should be used in handling all parts of the Queen Anne’s lace plant as it contains chemicals known as furocoumarins which can irritate the skin.
Use as a companion plant
The benefits of companion planting are more anecdotal than research-based, but they have a long traditions with gardeners. Tomatoes are said to grow better when Queen Anne’s lace is planted nearby; this may be due to the plant’s attracting wasps away from the tomatoes. Queen Anne’s lace may also benefit certain root crops by decoying a pest known as the carrot fly away from them. Anyone who has seen Queen Anne’s lace up close in the field will know that it is a ladybug magnet, and ladybugs naturally control aphids and other pests.
Use as a cut flower
The flowers of Queen Anne’s lace are umbels. Their short flower stalks (pedicels) resemble the ribs of an umbrella; they are equal in length and spread evenly outward and upward from a common central point. Each pedicel is topped with green bracts holding clusters of lacy white florets (little flowers). Flowers generally contain a single, central, red or purple floret.
Queen Anne’s lace makes a lovely cut flower but has a short vase-life of about five days. If placed in water to which food coloring has been added, the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace will assume that color, making an interesting and simple science experiment for children.
Where did the name come from?
The name of the plant is charming and surrounded by pretty legends, all more or less apocryphal. It may have been named after Anne Boleyn (1500-1536), Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), or Queen Anne the Good (1665-1714), as a tribute to her needlework prowess and skill at making lace. The flower’s single red umbel is fancifully said to represent a drop of blood from the Queen pricking her finger with her needle while tatting the lace.
A variation on this tale involves Anne of Denmark’s arriving in England and being so charmed at first sight of the flower that she initiated a contest amongst her ladies, to see if any of them could produce lace to rival the beauty of the flower. Others have suggested that the flower resembles a royal headdress, collar, or ruff made of lace, or that the flower was named after Saint Anne, the patron saint of lace makers.