I learned the Maine wildflowers from my grandmother, when I was three and learning to speak. Through the summer before my fourth birthday, she and I roamed the fields and woods around my grandparents’ farm and foraged.
My grandmother Sadie — we called her Grammy but her name was Sarah — took me foraging through the seasons beginning with bitter dandelion greens in the early spring; and these are my earliest memories. We ate them with the first eggs. My favorite was poached and served over a bed of braised and buttered dandelion greens, with toast slathered in last-year’s strawberry jam. I remember it being such a relief from the end-of-winter diet of dried beans and peas.
Sadie taught me of plants like the trout lily, who’s leaves look like a fresh-water trout in a stream, and who’s root is an edible tuber. We picked buckets full of wild strawberries to make strawberry jam. By mid-summer, the foraging declined, but we still gathered wild flowers for the table. She most particularly loved the Queen Anne’s Lace (QAL), the wild carrot.Her decorating scheme included plastic doilies that hinted at the wild carrot’s delicacy, they were made lace masterworks, pressed into a mold for pressing plastic – similar to the way they printed vinyl records – and distributed for sale at shops like Woolworth’s. These lace treasures, rendered in cream-colored plastic sheets filled with holes between the actual stitches of the original lace, were placed under glass vases filled with brightly-colored plastic flowers and set on the kitchen table, the night stands, a shelf in the bathroom, and the side-tables in the parlor. As a fiber-artist, I know the skill that went into making those doilies to be endlessly printed in plastic; it’s painstaking work, though easier with today’s CAD and spreadsheet software. Master lace artist Mary Schriffmann describes transcribing
While I cannot find an actual heirloom pattern named Queen Anne’s Lace (another oddity), its English heritage says that the flower was brought to England by Anne of Denmark, who issued a challenge to the ladies of her court to see who could best represent the umbral flower in lace. There’s also something about the needle and the drop of Anne’s blood and the lone scarlet flower at the center of every flower head. Despite her injury, Anne won the challenge, or so the story goes, but her design is lost to history; textiles, often the record of women’s technical skills, are fragile. But the wild carrot is a valuable plant; not just for its beauty; but as a food and medicine, and I still find it odd that Sadie never ate Queen Anne’s Lace or spoke of it as a food source; just a beautiful roadside and field flower.
Daucus carota is a biennial; in the first year the green carrot-frond leaves will have a carrot-like root that’s edible. The seeds are tasty, as well, reminiscent of caroway seeds. According to food-historian Clifford A. Wright, wild carrots spread out of Afghanistan and naturalized through a range that includes neolithic finds in Switzerland, as well as ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. While Sadie only taught me the plant as a flower, not a food, she was always happy to cut the blossoms to prevent it spreading to the pastures; for it can be a pest, a view iterated by my favorite wild-flower guide author, Mrs. William Starr Dana, in her book, How to Know the Wildflowers:
When the delicate flowers of the wild carrot are still unsoiled by the dust from the highway, and fresh from the early summer rains, they are very beautiful, adding much to the appearance of the roadsides and fields along which they grow so abundantly as to strike despair into the heart of the farmer, for this is, perhaps, the peskiest of all the weeds with which he has to contend. As time goes on the blossoms begin to have a careworn look and lose some thoing of the cobwebby aspect which won them the title of Queen Anne’s lace. In late summer, the flower-stalks erect themselves, forming a concave cluster which has the appearance of a bird’s nest. I have read that a species of bee makes use of this readymade home, but have never seen any indications of such an occupancy.
This is believed to be the stock from which the garden carrot was raised. The vegetable was well known to the ancients, and we learn from Pliny that the first specimens were brought to Rome from Candia. When it was first introduced into Great Britain is not known, although the suppositions is that it was brought over by the Dutch during the reign of Elizabeth. In the writings of Parkinson we read that the ladies wore carrot-leaves in their hair in place of feathers. One can picture the dejected appearance of a ballroom belle at the close of an entertainment.
That last took me by surprise, for it hints at the wild carrot’s medicinal use; for eating the QAL seeds causes a drop in progesterone. According to Sarah Sexy Plants*, wild carrot seed has been used as a contraceptive for over two thousand years; and it works like a morning-after pill. Here’s Sarah’s record of the medicinal history:
That first written mention comes from De Mulierum Affectibus, a gynecological text written in the tradition of Hippocrates (but likely not actually authored by him). It states that the wild carrot is an effective abortifacient (Riddle 1997).
And Pliny the Elder agreed, stating in his work Natural History that:
the seed of this plant, pounded and taken in wine reduces swelling of the abdomen… to such a degree as to restore the uterus to its natural condition (Pliny the Elder. Natural History)
as well as affirming that it was utilized as an aphrodisiac as well.
In his 1653 work Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpeper described the wild carrot as
belong[ing] to Mercury, and therefore break wind, and remove stitches in the sides, provoke urine and women’s courses…I suppose the seeds of them perform this better than the roots (Culpeper 1653)
And a recipe written shortly after by Joseph Pitton De Tournefort to “provoke menstruation” required:
two drams of the seed infused in white wine and drunk [to cure] hysterical fits or fits of the mother
Later Mrs. Grieve notes their use in her Modern Herbal:
The seeds are carminative, stimulant and very useful in flatulence, windy colic, hiccough, dysentery, chronic coughs, etc. The dose of the seeds, bruised, is from one-third to one teaspoonful, repeated as necessary. They were at one time considered a valuable remedy for calculus complaints. They are excellent in obstructions of the viscera, in jaundice (for which they were formerly considered a specific), and in the beginnings of dropsies, and are also of service as an emmenagogue (Mrs. Grieve 1931)
It turns out they were all right (remembering, of course, that once sensibilities regarding pregnancy and termination changed the term emmenagogue can usually be understood to work as an abortifacient) . Modern animal testing has shown that administering QAL at a dosage between 80 mg and 120 mg within six days of coitus results in a 100% reduction of implantation in the uterus (Sharma 1976). Even more interestingly,
in China studies found the seeds block the synthesis of the pregnancy hormone progesterone in pregnant animals, causing termination (Riddle 1992).
If Sadie had known this particular use of Queen Anne’s Lace, she never spoke of it to me, but she wouldn’t have, I was just a child, and she’d retired to an elder-apartment by the time I reached my menses, and polite company didn’t discuss women’s taboo topics. My mother, who might have benefited from QAL, would have been several weeks pregnant by my father, Sadie’s son, before Sadie knew, and so too far along in her pregnancy for the seeds to work their menses-inducing magic on a fifteen-year old woman child. Sarah writes, It also demonstrates how time sensitive dosage of the QAL is since applications of QAL between eight and ten days of coitus resulted in no significant effect on the number of viable pregnancies in the animal study (Sharma 1976).
Yet Queen Anne’s Lace, so pleasant and so willing to self sew has spread with humans, often in women’s cottage gardens, where they then escaped into the wild and naturalized. Sarah says it’s still used as a contraceptive today:
Interestingly, modern woman are using the seeds as an fertility measure, usually in places where access to birth control is scarce. Rural populations in India chew the seeds as a way to control fertility and women in the mountains of North Carolina have reported seed usage after every sexual encounter with 100% success noting that:
before the seeds are taken… they must be crushed, otherwise they go through… without absorption (Riddle 1997).
Out of all the herbal fertility knowledge I’ve studied it seems the use of QAL has remained the most intact and utilized. Even in antiquity, it was given that the seeds were the most effective part of the plant and noted that the seeds worked best when crushed or pounded before administering.
* I recommend Sarah’s Sexy Plants as a great resource on traditional plants and medicines and how they’ve been used to help deal with human sexuality.
Thanks to Maribou for the editing eyes and the soft touch.