Roy Lukes: Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Parsnip

A wildflower that is beginning its triumphal march across this region belongs to a large and difficult family of plants containing some interesting and widely used flavorings. Anise, caraway and dill belong to the Parsley Family that also includes a plant, which to some people is a beautiful wildflower, yet to others is a wretched weed – Queen Anne’s lace.

Many other common names exist for this frilly flower, such as wild carrot, bird’s nest plant and devil’s plague. While my choice of names is Queen Anne’s lace, undoubtedly many farmers prefer to call it the devil’s plague or some other unprintable title.

Admittedly it is a beautiful flower when looked at from above. With a little imagination I can envision some ancient European ladies, many centuries ago, coming up with the idea of lace-making by closely examining a complete head of Queen Anne’s lace.

Another name for the Parsley Family is the Umbelliferae Family, pronounced “um-bel-LIF er-ee.” Other common plants in this group are sweet cicely, parsnips and carrots.

Their flowers are umbel-shaped. Examine a Queen Anne’s lace flower and you will see that the total umbel is comprised of many smaller umbels. The plant that I have just finished taking apart, particle by particle, contained 56 small umbels. One of those umbels in turn was made up of 42 tiny individual flowers. I’m sure that you could find a Queen Anne’s lace with at least 2,352 very small individual flowers.

Situated around the margin of the entire flower head are slightly larger more visible florets having unevenly shaped white petals. Perhaps these larger petals help to attract certain insects to the flower. However, I find it hard to imagine most any flying insect having difficulty in locating these large showy blossoms.

Quite a few of the “Queens” have a rather prominent, singular, deep purple floret in the center of the heads. Some botanists believe these serve as decoys in luring flying insects to the flower. Bear in mind that a purple flower doesn’t necessarily appear purple to an insect but rather a very bright target-like spot.

I was interested in examining a Queen Anne’s lace flower to find that the deeply cut bracts surrounding the base of the flower head were quite tacky and fragrant. Not all of the plants I examined were like this. Should there be easy access to the blossom by hordes of ground-dwelling insects, including ants, I would presume that in the long run this might prove to be detrimental to the survival of the plant.

As it is, the Queen Anne’s lace flowers attract dozens of species of insects of quite a few different genera. My guess is that beneficial cross-pollination of the flowers is more likely to occur with the aid of flying insects, and that the sticky lower bracts of the flower keep unwanted insects at bay below and away from the top of the umbels where the sexual development takes place.

The “Queen’s” scheme, or strategy, of attracting so many different insects and spiders makes it a fascinating place to observe and learn more about these creatures’ lives. Get yourself a good field guide, such as the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, a good hand lens (10-power magnifier) and inspect some of the weedy flowers of the fields and roadsides.

You are going to be amazed at the goings-on! Jagged ambush bugs, crab or flower or goldenrod spiders (all the same) and other predators and prey will be common members of this fascinating “insect zoo.” Very likely the crab spiders will be white with pink blotches on the sides of their abdomens, and they’ll be wonderfully camouflaged and patiently waiting near the center of the Queen Anne’s lace flower. You shouldn’t be too surprised to find a considerably larger bumblebee or butterfly caught firmly in the deadly grasp of the spider.

Don’t think for one minute that I enjoy seeing, for example, a black swallowtail butterfly fall victim to a flower spider. That’s the other side of nature that we must accept as normal and, for all we know, necessary.

Learn to recognize the invasive wild parsnip and protect your skin from contact with its plant juices. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Learn to recognize the invasive wild parsnip and protect your skin from contact with its plant juices. Photo by Roy Lukes.

There is another member of this family that can be found in most parts of the state and is to be avoided. That is the invasive wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, and it is more a devil than Queen Anne’s lace. It has taken over vast fields in parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and in southern Wisconsin and can be found in a few sites in Door County. It is a biennial, meaning it sets a base of roots and a rosette of leaves in its first year then produces a tall flowering stalk the second year with greenish-yellow flowers and many seeds.

The plant can reach heights of five feet and will frequently grow in roadside ditches and abandoned fields. Each flower head is five-parted and may be four to eight inches wide. This plant can cause a severe rash or burning if any of its juices come in contact with skin and then exposed to sunlight. It is a photosensitive toxin. Some people with great sensitivity to it may develop blisters and require medical attention. The best advice is to learn what it looks like and avoid it, or wear long pants to be sure to cover your legs when walking in areas where it may grow. Some people say it is worse than poison ivy.

One look around the countryside now will quickly assure you that the Queen and her court of zillions of other hardy weeds are here to stay, so you might as well enjoy them. Sure, we do battle with plenty of them in our vegetable gardens and flowerbeds, but we also enjoy taking a close look at their beauty, photographing them and learning more about their insect and spider visitors.

Let’s face it, even though the vast majority of these colorful weeds are “alien invaders,” so were all our ancestors!

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