The fluffy white flower-heads of 'Queen Anne's Lace' have become a familiar sight along Inner Southeast Portland fields, yards, and roadsides.
Most people seem to consider Queen Anne's Lace an invasive weed. However, with its
delicate flowers and sturdy stems, it makes a lovely addition to a wildflower bouquet-- though some folks find the fern-like leaves itchy. It's more than just decorative; Queen Anne's Lace has been used in folk medicines to treat everything from flatulence to contraception. However, folk remedy reputation or not, experts strongly caution against ingesting any part of the plant, as it closely resembles the toxic water hemlock, Cicuta maculatum. Water hemlock grows in wet marshes and meadows, and often poisons cattle and livestock. It is also known as cowbane.
Natural gardeners appreciate a few Queen Anne's Lace plants near their gardens, since the plant attracts some insect predators: Green lacewings (which eat aphids) and antlion larvae (which eat ants). In the eastern U.S., caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly feed on the plant's greenery. During hot summer days when few other flowers are around, Queen Anne's lace continues to produce its dainty blooms.
This hardy biennial thrives in poor soil and dry conditions, and was introduced to this country from Europe. Daucus carota, also called wild carrot, belongs to the parsley family, and its tough taproot is thought to be the precursor to the cultivated carrots that we eat today.
Queen Anne's Lace flower heads are umbelliferous (umbrella-like), consisting of clusters of white or sometimes pink flowerettes, growing on hairy stems in lacy cloudlike shapes. At the center of each flower head is a small purple-red flowerette that is thought to attract insect pollinators. The flowers are sometimes referred to as 'bird's nest' flowers, due to the fact that they curl up into a cup shape as the seed heads dry. The plants spend their first year establishing a strong taproot and feathery leaves, then produce blooms and seeds in their second year.
The plant has an interesting history. According to English lore, the flower was popular during the reign of King James I (1566-1625), the first of the Stuart kings of England. (King James I was the monarch who sponsored the translation of the Bible that bears his name.) When Anne of Denmark arrived to be his Queen, she was well-known for her skill at lace making. Tradition has it that the flower was named for her beautiful lace creations, or for the lacy headdresses that she favored. The purple-red flowerette that grows at the center of the flower head is said to represent a drop of blood that fell from the queen's finger while she tatted lace.