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Puffy coat, thick hat, double mittens, long underwear, wool pants, big socks, bigger boots, and a soft scarf. You may be encumbered, but you sure are warm. Welcome to The Nature of Phenology where we share the cycles and seasons of the outdoors. I’m your host, Hazel Stark.
Whether mid-January brings a thaw, a blizzard, or ideal ice-skating conditions, talk of phenology often becomes limited to the winter survival strategies of animals. Finding animal tracks, listening to the nighttime calls of barred owl pairs, or spotting a perfectly camouflaged snowshoe hare or ermine offer a sense of excitement and change during a season that might otherwise feel still and unending. But today I’m here to argue in defense of the excitement of plants, and one plant in particular whose seed heads have curled up into what may look like a perfect tiny bird nest on the end of a stem: Queen Anne’s lace.
All plants have an ideal season for finding and recognizing them. While the white flower heads of Queen Anne’s lace can be easy to find when they bloom in the summer, they can be overshadowed by the plethora of other flowers showing off around the same time. In winter, especially when there’s a layer of snow on the ground, those curled up seed heads really shine as they teeter on spindly stems a foot or two above the ground.
Like animals, plants have a diversity of adaptations for surviving winter. Probably the most well-known adaptation is the ability to shed leaves—even evergreens shed leaves, just not all of them at once. This ability helps them reduce how much water they lose to evaporation and reduces snow and ice-loading, which can cause limbs to shatter and fall. For herbaceous plants, their growth cycles overall vary from species to species. In the case of Queen Anne’s lace, this herbaceous plant is a biennial, meaning it spends its first year of life developing some ground-hugging leaves and a taproot and then during its second year it develops flowers, seeds, then dies. When you see the curled up seed heads of Queen Anne’s lace now, you know that individual’s two-year life cycle is at its end. But even from beyond the grave, that curling seed head is still offering support to the next generation as it shelters and insulates the seeds within to give them a head start come spring.
Queen Anne’s lace gets that particular common name from its flower’s resemblance to white lace and the sometimes red floret found amongst the mostly white florets. In days of old, this red floret was said to resemble a drop of blood due perhaps to Queen Anne pricking her finger while doing some lace work. Today, some botanists suggest that this red floret may in fact serve as an insect mimic, attracting predatory insects to land in order to snatch what from a distance may look like some tasty insect prey, but instead is a ploy by the plant to attract more pollinators. Like so many of these weedy Old World plants, Queen Anne’s lace goes by a number of names, such as wild carrot, or Daucus carota to Latin name enthusiasts.
A subspecies of this common field plant is what our garden carrot was bred from. Queen Anne’s lace is technically just as edible as our garden carrots, but more challenging to dig and identify in the field. Interestingly, within one generation of a garden carrot, it can “go wild” and essentially transform into the Queen Anne’s lace we see in fields. Correct identification is critical for this wild carrot, however, due to its resemblance to some very poisonous plants, such as poison hemlock. Due to its look-alikes, it’s worth consulting an expert of plant ID if you’re considering eating this particular wild delight.
So the next time you struggle with believing that summer will ever arrive or you’re fondly remembering frolicking through meadows full of tall white flowers and the color green adorning just about everything, you could head outside in search of the bird nest-like seed heads of Queen Anne’s lace. These resilient little plants prove both that summer wasn’t so long ago and that it’ll return, replete with lacey flowers and tasty roots.
You can find a link to the full transcript of this show as well as references, contact information, and accompanying photos by visiting archives.weru.org. You can also listen to or download our features or subscribe to podcasts. Theme music was by a pileated woodpecker, made available by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks for listening and please join us next week for another dive into The Nature of Phenology.
Gibbons, E. (1966). Stalking the healthful herbs. Chambersburg, PA: A.C. Hood.
Stark, H. (2015, October 01). Queen Anne’s Lace. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from https://partridgepineandpeavey.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/queen-annes-lace/
The Wild Carrot. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2018, from http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/wild.html