One of These Plants is Not Like the Other

Identifying Commonly Mistaken Native Plants with Grace Rector

Published May 20, 2024

Spring awakening is more evident with every passing day here on the farm, and with its emergence comes the fluorescence of all the wild plants and fungi. Here, in Western North Carolina, it is truly a forager’s dreamscape. One in particular that grows abundantly here on the farm is Queen Anne’s lace, also known as Wild Carrot or by its scientific name, Daucus carota. This flower typically blossoms in mid-summer or early fall, and it can be found all over the United States. However, according to the United States Forest Service, it is actually native to Europe, which makes some sense given its name. As a child, I remember my mother teaching me how to identify Queen Anne’s lace. I always found it to be a beautiful flower and a wonderful addition to any bouquet. Queen Anne’s lace is not only a beautiful plant, but it also has a range of medicinal benefits that may help improve digestive, urinary, circulatory, and endocrine function; making it a great herb to add to your apothecary. I will go into more detail about the specifics of its uses and benefits, but for now, let’s make sure we know how to identify Queen Anne’s lace. This plant, and many others, happen to have a couple dangerous look-alikes, so knowing how to properly identify it could mean the difference between life or death. This is an important rule to follow when doing any foraging in the wild. 

Queen Anne’s lace can be identified in a number of ways. It typically grows 2-4 feet tall and has erect stems that are hairy, hollow, and grooved. You can use this silly phrase to remember: “Queen Anne has hairy legs.” When this plant flowers, it does so as umbels, or clusters, of small, white flowers which give the plant a lacy look. There are many plants with tales of lore to accompany its history, and Queen Anne’s lace is no exception. One of my favorite methods of identifying the plant comes from a tale of how it got its name. It is said that Queen Anne Ⅱ was tatting a piece of lace when she pricked her finger with a needle and a drop of blood fell onto the lace. This is why there is a deep red dot at the center of the umbel of white flowers, and noticing this red dot could actually save your life if you choose to consume this plant. 

Queen Anne’s Lace/Daucus carota

When foraging for different herbs and plants, there is one golden rule: if you cannot definitively identify the plant, do not eat it. It is very important to know how to identify the plants you’re after because there may be look-alike plants that have the potential to hurt you. For example, poison hemlock, or Conium maculatum, is one of the deadliest plants in North America. It just so happens that it not only bears close resemblance to Queen Anne’s lace, but the plants tend to grow in the same conditions as well. Knowing the key differences between these two plants could literally save your life and the lives of any animals you keep. Now that we know how to identify Queen Anne’s lace, let us learn how poison hemlock differs. While Queen Anne’s lace has a hairy green stem, poison hemlock is going to have a smooth stem with purple blotches. Both plants flower in white umbels, but poison hemlock is going to have a more rounded umbel while Queen Anne’s lace has umbels that are more flat-topped. Poison hemlock typically grows 3-10 feet in height and its stem is almost as thick as your average index finger. See picture below so that you may properly identify this plant. If after reading this article, you go out this spring/summer and find that you may have some poison hemlock growing somewhere that humans or animals frequent, it is recommended that you promptly remove it. Poison hemlock can be harmful to even touch, so if you do need to perform any removal of the plant, make sure you wear gloves, sleeves, and pants to prevent dermatitis.

Poison Hemlock/ Conium maculatum

There may also be look-alike plants that may not hurt you, but they aren’t going to give you the same benefits that your target plant will. For example, another look-alike plant to Queen Anne’s lace that grows in similar conditions is yarrow, or Achillea millefolium. You may or may not have heard of this popular plant for all of its medicinal benefits including its use as a field remedy in staunching a bleeding wound. If you haven’t heard of this, here’s a helpful tip: just chew up a bit of the flower, place it on a wound, and wrap if possible to keep the flower on. While yarrow is a useful medicine in its own right, it does not have the same benefits as Queen Anne’s lace and vice-versa, so it is still important to know how to properly identify their differences. However, if you do happen to get them mixed up, neither is toxic, so you should be safe. Yarrow is another plant that flowers in white umbels, however, yarrow has flowers that are a little bigger and more sporadic than you would find on Queen Anne’s lace umbels. Additionally, yarrow is going to have distinct feather-like leaves alternating up the stem to the umbels. They both grow to about the same height and in similar conditions, so the appearance of the umbels and the feather-like leaves are going to be your strongest identifiers. See picture below.

Yarrow/ Achillea millefolium

Now that you know how to properly identify these 3 plants, I would love to go into more detail about the benefits of consuming Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow. One similarity between Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow is that you should not consume either of these plants if you are pregnant. Hippocrates once prescribed Queen Anne’s lace to women to prevent pregnancies, and modern science has found that this use does hold some merit. While Queen Anne’s lace is a wild carrot, it is not recommended that you try to harvest the root as it is best consumed before the flowers pop up, making it very difficult to identify. Instead, you may consume the flowers and leaves which have historically been used as a diuretic or to soothe the digestive tract. The plant also has properties that may aid in liver detoxification and urinary or kidney issues. If you decide you want to consume this plant, you can add it into a salad or mix it into a jam. I feel that it is important to mention that Queen Anne’s lace is considered invasive in some states and can easily take over native species habitat if not managed properly. While you can plant this flower in your garden, I recommend venturing out to look for it in the wild, as there is an abundance available. Just be sure that where you are foraging is not sprayed with any harmful herbicides or subject to other forms of pollution. 

Yarrow has a wide range of medicinal benefits, but before I get into that, I would like to tell the tales of lore around this plant. Remember the scientific name for the plant that I mentioned a couple paragraphs up? Achillea millefolium. This name was given to the plant by Carl Linnaeus, the scientist who formalized binomial nomenclature, our modern system of naming organisms. He named the plant after the mythical Greek hero, Achilles, who has quite the legend. It is said that Achilles would use yarrow to help staunch the wounds of his warriors on the field of battle, but when he was bleeding out from a fatal wound to his–you guessed it– achilles heel, the plant was nowhere to be found and he bled out. A tragedy indeed. As far as the plant’s medicinal uses goes, the list is quite long. To just name a few of the internal benefits: Yarrow can be used as a diaphoretic– helping to detoxify the body through sweating, it is helpful with combating allergies, can balance hormones and support the uterus, relieve gastro-intestinal discomfort, and may help reduce blood pressure. External benefits include preventing and soothing bug bites, stopping a bleed, or treating skin conditions such as eczema. All around, yarrow is a very useful herb with quite an interesting history and folklore. 

With the arrival of spring and summer following shortly after, we encourage curiosity, adventure, and mindful forages when visiting the farm and/or other outdoor destinations. If you take anything from this article, I hope that it is how important proper identification is. I hope that this article helps anyone out there wanting to learn about herbalism and the power of plants. Foraging for wild foods and medicines should be fun, educational, and adventurous, but it is always important to be mindful about what it is that you are harvesting and how much. If you are not sure about whether you should be consuming various plant medicines or you’re unsure about dosage, please consult your doctor or herbalist. For more information on proper foraging and herbal consumption practices, please visit the links below. 

Foraging and Harvesting Indigenous and Wild Plants Best Practices

Let it grow! A guide to ethical and sustainable foraging – Planet Forward

Sustain | Foraging for Beginners

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