How to Identify Queen Anne's Lace (Wild Carrot)
Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota)—also called wild carrot, bird's nest, and bishop's lace—is an herbaceous weed native to Europe and parts of Asia but can also be found in North America and Australia. Classified as a biennial plant, it flowers in its second year of growth—usually from spring to early fall.
It is most identifiable by its white, lacy flowers and isn't considered poisonous to humans. However, it is often mistaken for poisonous plants that share a similar appearance, like poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and giant hogweeds (Heracleum mantegazzianum), so it is important to know how to properly identify Queen Anne's lace.
Queen Anne's Laces vs. Hemlocks vs. Giant Hogweeds
Queen Anne's Lace
Dense, flat-topped umbel (~5 in. diameter), usually with a purple flower in the center
Rounded umbel with flower clusters more spread out
Large, rounded umbel (~2.5 ft. diameter)
Hairy underside, matte, fern-like, and smells like parsley
Large and shiny with no hairs
Very large (~5 ft spread) coarse hairs underneath
Short, white hairs, no purple spots
Hairless, waxy, and purple spots
Purple spots and coarse, white hairs
Hairy, white, and smells like carrots
Hairless, purple blotches, and smells like mouse urine
Large, extensive taproot
Up to 4 ft. tall
Usually 3-8 ft. tall
Anywhere from 8-20 ft. tall
Did You Know?
Although it is edible, Queen Anne's lace is considered a noxious weed in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington because of its detrimental effects on crops and livestock in those states.
Queen Anne's Lace Look-Alikes
- Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
- Water hemlock or cowbane (Cicuta spp.)
- Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
- Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)
- Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum)
- Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
- Wild celery or garden angelica (Angelica archangelica)
- Wild parsnips (Pastinaca sativa)
Which Ones Are Poisonous?
From this list, poison hemlock, water hemlock, and giant hogweeds are the most poisonous—to livestock, pets, and humans.
Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot), common hogweed, cow parsnip, cow parsley, wild celery, and wild parsnips are often used as food and/or medicine. However, you should be careful of which parts are harvested. Their sap can cause severe skin burns and blisters with exposure to the sun.
It's also important to note that, despite being edible, wild carrot seeds have anti-fertility properties (inhibiting implantation of the embryo) and have been used throughout history for contraception and abortion. Although further studies are needed to fully understand these effects, women who are or plan to have a child should avoid consuming wild carrots—particularly the seeds.
Did You Know?
The small, purple flower is said to be a drop of blood left by Queen Anne when she pricked her finger on a needle while making the lace. Its evolutionary purpose is to attract pollinators.
How to Tell if It's Queen Anne's Lace
- Look at the Flowers: They'll be arranged in small clusters that are tightly packed together in an umbrella-like shape (umbel) with a flat top (think inside-out umbrella). Oftentimes, there will also be one purple flower at the center of the umbel. Poison hemlock flowers are arranged loosely in a rounded umbel.
- Examine the Stems: They'll have entirely green stems with no discoloration (unless they're dying or diseased). In addition, they'll be covered in short, coarse, white hairs. Poison hemlock stems are smooth and have purple spots and blotches throughout.
- Check the Leaves: The leaves have a matte, fern-like appearance, with hairs on the underside. If you rub them between your fingers, they'll produce a carrot- or parsley-like aroma. The leaves on poison hemlocks will produce an off-putting odor similar to mouse urine.
- Smell the Roots: The smell of Queen Anne's lace lives up to the name of wild carrot because it really does smell like carrots! On the other hand, poison hemlock roots are rank and smell like parsnips, although to some, they can also smell like carrots.
- Look for Bracts: Bracts are modified leaves that usually appear at the base of flower. The Queen Anne's lace has long, three-pronged bracts underneath the umbel while the poison hemlock doesn't.
Why Proper Plant Identification Is Important
Queen Anne’s lace flowers, seeds, and roots are all edible—either raw or cooked. The seeds are also reported to have medicinal properties. In addition, it is often used in classroom experiments (the flower heads will change color when the fresh cut stems are exposed to dyed water). However, because the plant so closely resembles highly toxic plants like hemlocks and giant hogweeds, many people have unwittingly poisoned themselves and others.
How Deadly Is Hemlock?
Although it isn't very harmful to touch poison hemlock, the oils from the stem, leaves, and flowers may still cause skin irritation, including itching and burning. It is, however, highly toxic to ingest because it contains coniine, an alkaloid compound that blocks the central nervous system's ability to communicate with muscles and other organs. Symptoms of poisoning will appear within an hour and include:
- burning sensation along the digestive tract
- increased saliva
- increased heart rate followed by decreased heart rate
- rapid breathing followed by slowed breathing
- loss of motor control
- convulsions and seizures followed by muscle weakness or paralysis
In severe cases, hemlock poisoning may result in death, primarily through respiratory failure. There are currently no antidotes, and treatments are primarily targeted at the most life-threatening symptoms (e.g. artificial ventilation or anti-seizure medication).
If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or others, seek emergency medical attention right away.
What Happens if You Touch Giant Hogweed?
Unlike poison ivy, simply touching or brushing up against giant hogweeds won't do anything. However, it's the sap mixed with sunlight that can cause a severe inflammatory reaction (phytophotodermatitis) on your skin, causing extremely painful burns and blisters that last for several days, and darkened skin and scars that can last for several months. It can even lead to blindness if the victim inadvertently touches their eyes. The reaction starts when a compound in the sap (furocoumarin) gets activated by exposure to UV rays from sunlight. Symptoms develop gradually from 1-3 days after exposure.
If you accidentally get giant hogweed sap on your skin, wash it of immediately with cold, soapy water, or cover up the area until you can wash it off. If you notice any of the symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
Did You Know?
Queen Anne's lace makes for a fun science experiment to demonstrate how plants draw up water and nutrients. Just add some food dye to their water and see the flowers change colors!
Stay Safe: Know Your Plants
Unless you are experienced with identifying the differences between wild carrot and hemlock, it is best to avoid picking the plants for consumption. Many people have accidentally consumed hemlock because they confuse the leaves for parsley (an alternate name for hemlock is poison parsley), or the seeds for anise.