Sandy’s Garden ... Queen Anne’s Lace

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Years ago, in the course of a visit to Boston, Massachusetts, we admired … and bought … a pair of cotton sheets.

We regretted our purchase when the time came to repack our suitcases for the return journey home. I had forgotten all about them. But my wife had not; and recently, when she decided that some sheets which had seen many years of sterling service had finally come to the end of their useful lives, she unpacked them and brought them into use.

The most striking thing about these sheets is that they are not self-coloured. They carry an all-over design, executed in attractive colours, on the theme of the wild flowers, with some rather fetching botanical illustrations of common wild flowers – being, of course, wild flowers which are common in Massachusetts but not necessarily common in central Scotland. And, gentle reader, if you recall your history lessons from school days, you may recall that Boston, Massachusetts, is best remembered for the Boston Tea Party, a political protest by the Sons of Liberty demanding that there be ‘no taxation without representation.’ That piece of civil unrest occurred on December 16, 1773, almost certainly before the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace were to be found Stateside. The Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) website tells me that there is no record of when that common name entered the English language. But by 1894 the name was somewhat general in the U.S. Walter P Eaton, the author of a book with the intriguing title ‘Barn Doors and Byways’, first published in Boston in 1913, wrote that wild carrot bears a dainty, flat-topped white bloom sometimes as large as a saucer, and a long bed of flowers “often appears like a strip of delicate embroidery along the wayside, making their more aristocratic title of Queen Anne’s lace entirely applicable.”

Queen Anne’s lace is called the wild carrot outside North America, for the excellent reason that Daucus carota … its proper botanical name … is the progenitor of Daucus carota sativus, better known as the carrot. That name name Queen Anne’s lace is the American name for a plant occasionally called bird’s nest in Britain or curran-petris in Gaeldom, though it is usually called wild carrot. The WSSA also informs me that “when Anne arrived from Denmark to become the queen of King James I of England, wild carrot was still a novelty in the royal gardens. Legend says that Queen Anne challenged the ladies of the court to a contest to see who could produce a pattern of lace as lovely as the flower of the carrot. The ladies knew that no one could rival the queen’s handiwork so it became a triumph for Anne.” (The WSSA’s version of history is flawed. Anne married King James VI of Scotland in 1589, fourteen years before her husband united the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.)

Whatever … and there are other stories about how the plant came by its American name … Queen Anne’s lace is a relatively tall plant which grows to anything between 3 and 4 feet tall, say 90-120 cm in today’s currency. It is easily identified by its flat-topped cluster of small, white flowers and fern-like leaves, which smell like carrots when they are crushed. Some authorities say that spring-collected roots are edible, although they quickly become too woody to consume. The renowned 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, however, believed the roots to be “small, long and hard and unfit for meat, being somewhat sharp and strong.” Thought to have come originally from the Iranian Plateau … an area which now includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran … Daucus carota grows wild nowadays in many parts of the world, with a distinct liking for abandoned fields, waste places and road sides. Appropriately enough, given the current problems in the countries of its origin, wild carrot is widely regarded as a noxious weed which causes many problems. Don’t encourage it!