Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Queen Anne's Lace, or Wild Carrot

Teacher's Story

Queen Anne was apparently given to wearing lace made in medallion patterns; and even though we grant that her lace is most exquisite in design as well as in execution, we wish most sincerely that there had been established in America such a high tariff on this royal fabric as to have prohibited its importation. It has for decades held us and our lands prisoners in its delicate meshes, it being one of the most stubborn and persistent weeds that ever came to us from over the seas.

But for those people who admire lace of intricate pattern, and beautiful blossoms whether they grow on scalawag plants or not, this medallion flower attributed to Queen Anne is well worth studying. It belongs to the family Umbelliferae,  which one of my small pupils always called umbrelliferae because, he averred, they have umbrella blossoms. In the case of Queen Anne's lace the flower-cluster, or umbel, is made up of many smaller umbels, each a most perfect flower-cluster in itself. Each tiny white floret has five petals and should have five stamens with creamy anthers, but often has only two. However, it has always at its center two fat little pistils set snugly together, and it rests in a solid, bristly, green, cup-like calyx. Twenty or thirty of these little blossoms are set in a rosette, the stems of graded length; and where the bases of the stems meet are some long, pointed, narrow bracts, which protectingly brood the flowers in the bud and the seeds as they ripen. Each of these little flower-clusters, or umbels, has a long stem, its length being just fit to bring it to its right place in the medallion pattern of this royal lace. And these stems also have set at their bases some bracts with long, thread-like lobes, which make a delicate, green background for the opening blossoms; these bracts curl up protectingly about the buds and the seeds. If we look straight into the large flower-cluster, we can see that each component cluster, or umbelicel, seems to have its own share in making the larger pattern; the outside blossoms of the outside clusters have the outside petals larger, thus forming a beautiful border and calling to mind the beautiful flowers of the Composites. At the very center of this flower medallion, there is often a larger floret with delicate wine-colored petals; this striking floret is not a part of a smaller flower-cluster, but stands in stately solitude upon its own isolated stem. The reason for this giant floret at the center of the wide, circular flower-cluster is a mystery; and so far as I know, the botanists have not yet explained the reason for its presence. May we not, then, be at liberty to explain its origin on the supposition that her Royal Highness, Queen Anne, was wont to fasten her lace medallions upon her royal person with garnet-headed pins?


Queen Anne's lace, or wild carrot.

Photo by Verne Morton.

When the flowers wither and the seeds begin to form, the flower-cluster then becomes very secretive; every one of the little umbels turns toward the center, its stem curving over so that the outside umbels reach over and "tuck in" the whole family; and the threadlike bracts at the base reach up as if they, too, were in the family councils, and must do their slender duty in helping to make the fading flowers into a little, tightfisted clump; and all of this is done so that the precious seeds may be safe while they are ripening. Such little porcupines as these seeds are! Each seed is clothed with long spines set in bristling rows, and is a most forbidding-looking youngster when examined through a lens; and yet there is method in its spininess, and we must grudgingly grant that it is not only beautiful in its ornamentation but is also well fitted to take hold with a will when wandering winds sift it down to the soil.

The wild carrot is known in some localities as the "bird's-nest weed," because the maturing seed-clusters, their edges curving inward, look like little birds' nests. But no bird's nest ever contained so many eggs as does this imitation one. In one we counted 34 tiny umbels on which ripened 782 seeds; and the plant, from which this "bird's nest" was taken, developed nine more quite as large.


An inner and a border floret and a bract of Queen Anne's lace, enlarged.

Altogether the wild carrot is well fitted to maintain itself in the struggle for existence, and is most successful in crowding out its betters in pasture and meadow. Birds do not like its spiny seeds; the stem of the plant is tough and its leaves are rough and have an unpleasant odor and acrid taste, which render it unpalatable to grazing animals. Winter's cold cannot harm it, for it is a biennial; its seeds often germinate in the fall, sending down long, slender taproots crowned with tufts of inconspicuous leaves; it thus stores up a supply of starchy food which enables it to start early the next season with great vigor. The root, when the plant is fully grown, is six or eight inches long, as thick as a finger and yellowish white in color; it is very acrid and somewhat poisonous.

The surest way of exterminating the Queen Anne's lace is to prevent its prolific seed production by cutting or uprooting the plants as soon as the first blossoms open.

" 'Tis Eden everywhere to hearts that listen

And watch the woods and meadows grow."

—Theron Brown.


Seed-cluster, or "bird's nest," of wild carrot.

Photo by Charles F. Fudge.


Queen Anne's Lace, or Wild Carrot

Leading thought—Queen Anne's lace is a weed which came to us from Europe and flourishes better here than on its native soil. It has beautiful blossoms set in clusters, and it matures many seeds which it manages to plant successfully.

Method—The object of this lesson should be to show the pupils how this weed survives the winter and how it is able to grow where it is not wanted, maintaining itself successfully, despite man's enmity. The weed is very common along most country roadsides, and in many pastures and meadows. It blossoms very late in the autumn, and is available for lessons often as late as November. Its seed-clusters may be used for a lesson at almost any time during the winter.


1. Look at a wild carrot plant; how are its blossoms arranged? Take a flower-cluster, what is its shape? How many small flower-clusters make the large one? How are these arranged to make the large cluster symmetrical?

2. Take one of the little flower-clusters from near the center, and one from the outside, of the large cluster; how many little flowers, or florets make up the smaller cluster? Look at one of the florets through a lens; can you see the cup-shaped calyx? How many petals has it? Can you see its five anthers and its two white pistils?

3. Take one of the outer florets of the outside cluster; are all its flowers the same shape? How do they differ? Where are the florets with the large petals placed in the big flower-cluster? How does this help to make "the pattern?"

4. Do the outside or the central flowers of the large clusters open first? Can you find a cluster with an almost black or very dark red floret at its center? Is this dark flower a part of one of the little clusters or does it stand alone, its stem reaching directly to the main stalk? Do you think it makes the flowers of the Queen Anne's lace prettier to have this dark red floret at the center?

5. Take a flower-cluster with the flowers not yet open. Can you see the threadlike green bracts that close up around each bud? Can you see finely divided, threadlike bracts that stand out around the whole cluster? What position do these bracts assume when the flowers are open? What do they do after the flowers fade and the seeds are being matured?

6. What is the general shape of the seed-cluster of the wild carrot? Have you ever found such a cluster broken off and blowing across the snow? Do you think this is one way the seed is planted?

7. Examine a single seed of the wild carrot with a lens. Is it round or oblong? Thin or flat? Is it ridged or grooved? Has it any hooks or spines by which it might cling to the clothing of passers-by, or to the hair or fleece of animals, and thus be scattered more widely? Does the seed cling to its stem or break away readily when it is touched?

8. Take one seed-cluster and count the number of seeds within it. How many seed-clusters do you find on a single plant? How many seeds do you, therefore, think a single plant produces?

9. What should you consider the best means of destroying this prolific weed?

10. What do you think is the reason that the wild carrot remains untouched, so that it grows vigorously and matures its seeds in lanes and pastures where cattle graze?

11. Have you noticed any birds feeding on the seeds of the wild carrot?

I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellow-hammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place. Let me find them morning after morning, the starry-white petals radiating, striving upwards to their ideal. Let me see the idle shadows resting on the white dust; let me hear the humble-bees, and stay to look down on the rich dandelion disc. Let me see the very thistles opening their great crowns—I should miss the thistles; the reed-grasses hiding the moor-hen; the bryony bine, at first crudely ambitious and lifted by force of youthful sap straight above the hedgerow to sink of its own weight presently and progress with crafty tendrils; swifts shot through the air with outstretched wings like crescent-headed shaftless arrows darted from the clouds; the chaffinch with a feather in her bill; all the living staircase of the spring, step by step, upwards to the great gallery of the summer—let me watch the same succession year by year.

—"The Pageant of Summer," by Richard Jeffries.

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