The wildflowers here are abundant and can be very beautiful, especially when they grow in large numbers. We have recently been seeing a pretty white flower growing mostly in the orchard,
but Bruce told me it is invasive and we should try to get rid of it.
Well, before we do that I needed to take lots of photos of it. The flower is Queen Anne’s Lace, (Daucus carota), or wild carrot. It is the parent plant of the cultivated carrot with a similar odor. The head is composed of hundreds of small flowers and it often has a central pink, purple or brown section.. As it ages the outer edge elongates and curls downward.
I thought it was great that I was able to photograph the flower in many stages of its life, until I read that maybe it isn’t Queen Anne’s Lace at all, but instead Poison Hemlock. Oh no. Well, of course, I had no idea that this was a problem, and I had no idea how to tell the difference, and just exactly how poisonous is it? Seems it was time to do some more research. Here’s what I found:
It is highly important to identify Queen Anne’s Lace correctly, because the plant closely resembles the highly poisonous Hemlock plant. Hemlock contains a poison called Coniine, which blocks the ability of the nervous system to transmit information to the muscles. Like curare, Hemlock will cause a progressive paralysis, which affects the diaphragm and results in an inability to breathe (causing death). Socrates was poisoned by Hemlock.
Poison-hemlock is acutely toxic to people and animals, with symptoms appearing 20 minutes to three hours after ingestion. All parts of the plant are poisonous and even the dead canes remain toxic for up to three years. The amount of toxin varies and tends to be higher in sunny areas. Eating the plant is the main danger, but it is also toxic to the skin and respiratory system. When digging or mowing large amounts of poison-hemlock, it is best to wear gloves and a mask or take frequent breaks to avoid becoming ill. One individual had a severe reaction after pulling plants on a hot day because the toxins were absorbed into her skin. The typical symptoms for humans include dilation of the pupils, dizziness, and trembling followed by slowing of the heartbeat, paralysis of the central nervous system, muscle paralysis, and death due to respiratory failure. For animals, symptoms include nervous trembling, salivation, lack of coordination, pupil dilation, rapid weak pulse, respiratory paralysis, coma, and sometimes death. For both people and animals, quick treatment can reverse the harm and typically there aren’t noticeable aftereffects. If you suspect poisoning from this plant, call for help immediately because the toxins are fast-acting – for people, call poison-control at 1-800-222-1222 or for animals, call your veterinarian.
So…that’s not good. But I still didn’t know if I had a benign plant or a poisonous one. How are they identified?
As Queen Anne’s Lace is often used in classroom experiments (the flower heads will change color when the fresh cut stems are exposed to dyed water), it is vital to correctly identify this plant prior to harvesting. In addition, some people do harvest and eat the roots of wild carrot, or make a jelly from Queen Anne’s Lace.
One important identifier of wild carrot is the smell. Queen Anne’s Lace gives off a carrot-like smell when the leaves of the plant are crushed.
This is true, it does smell like carrot greens.
Hemlock, on the other hand, has a rank, musty smell similar to parsnips. When picking wild carrot, it is important to smell each plant before harvesting its flowers.
Wild carrot has green stems with little green hairs. The stems are entirely green, with no other discoloration.
Hemlock has smooth stems, and the lower portion of the stem will be streaked with red or purple spots and lines.
Queen Anne’s Lace grows to a height of 1-3 feet, while Poison Hemlock grows to a height of 6-8 feet.
Queen Anne’s Lace earned its name from the appearance of the flower: it appears like a fine lace. In the middle of the flower, there is a purple “heart” (a small, dark red or purple flower in the center). This small, red flower is said to be the blood from Queen Anne, when she pricked her finger on a needle while making the lace. The actual purpose of the tiny, dark flower is to attract pollinating insects. Hemlock does not have a small, dark flower in the center.
When Queen Anne’s Lace goes to seed, the umbrels fold up into a concave form (resembling a bird’s nest) and eventually fall off the stem to form a small tumbleweed. Poison Hemlock does not fold up. The seeds of the Queen Anne’s lace have spiny structures on the outside, while the Poison Hemlock seeds are smooth.
Some other interesting facts about Queen Anne’s Lace:
The leaves are eaten by the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar
You can eat the roots of young plants and the seeds
The leaves can cause photodermatitis which is a chemical reaction that makes the skin hyper-sensitive to UV light
The flowers are used as a dye producing a creamy, off-white color
The plants have been used to boost tomato production when kept nearby and can provide a microclimate of cooler, moister air for lettuce when intercropped with it. But the USDA has listed it as a noxious weed, meaning it is injurious to agricultural and/or horticultural crops, natural habitats and/or ecosystems and/or humans or livestock.
**To see a fantastic series of photos on the life cycle of Queen Anne’s Lace, go to this page, by Brian Johnston;