12 August 2009

The fruit of the wild carrot

Did you know that the plant we in America call "Queen Anne's Lace" is known elsewhere, including in France, as the wild carrot? It actually is the wild carrot, as Susan of Days on the Claise has pointed out. It grows wild in Asia, Europe, North America (where it was introduced by humans), and elsewhere around the world. It reputedly originated in Afghanistan.

The wild carrot is in theory edible, but the root turns woody very early in the plant's development cycle, and that makes it a lousy food. The "domesticated" carrots we eat were developed in Holland in the 16th and 17th centuries by a process of careful selection to emphasize the root's desirable culinary characteristics: sweetness and tenderness.

Lots of wild carrots out in the vineyard

Here in Saint-Aignan, wild carrots grow everywhere, including around the vineyards and along the roads that run through them. Carrots, including wild carrots, are biennial plants. They flower in their second year. And then the flower becomes a big cluster of seeds — which are little fruits, in reality.

The Queen Anne's Lace flower in its later stages of development

In French the flower cluster is called the inflorescence and, in its later stages, it becomes the infrutescence, or fruit cluster. According to the French Wikipedia entry on the subject, « Les fruits sont des diakènes qui portent des côtes munies d'aiguillons participant à leur diffusion par les animaux. » That's a mouthful.

The fruit cluster of the wild carrot

"The fruits are diachenes with needled ribs that facilitate their diffusion by animals." In other words, the seeds stick in animals' fur. We cavalierly call them seeds, but it fact they are little fruits with a single seed in the middle. Did you know that carrot seeds have been used as a contraceptive? Take a teaspoon of them for birth control; Hippocrates supposedly prescribed them for that purpose more than 2,000 years ago.

A field of Queen Anne's Lace

Be careful if you handle wild carrot plants. You can have a reaction called "phytophotodermatitis." That's a reddish rash that can turn into blisters on your skin. The blistering is caused by hypersensitivity to ultraviolet light, so get indoors as fast as you can if you get the rash.

L'inflorescence de la carotte sauvage

What a wonderful world we live in! Danger is everywhere.


  1. What a wonderful post! I learn so much from you, Ken. (I do like the name "Queen Anne's Lace," though. One of the few wild flower names that stuck.)

  2. On my grandparents' Pennsylvania farm we would ride around the perimeter of the grain and corn fields every day after supper looking for wild carrots. We'd pull them out by the roots. If they get into the fields of hay or grains, which we used to feed the dairy cattle, they would just take over (as your pictures- which made me shudder) demonstrate. Grandpa never told me why they would be so bad for the cows, but he was passionate about it. To this day I cannot drive by one growing near a food crop and not notice it, though I have at least quit stopping to pull them out.

    By the way, we are just now back in the US.

    Dennis Martin

  3. Very interesting post, as always, Ken :)


  4. Dangerous and fascinating world.
    I will take the time to check out those fascinating facts. Thank you Ken.

  5. Ça alors, Ken-I am more knowledgeable, thanks to you, everyday when I open your blog. Ça me convient parfaitement !!!!! :-)

    btw: word verification "crier"

  6. And now for some nerdy botanical info (gleaned from the Botanical Society of the British Isles Handbook on Umbellifers, which was my textbook on this family at university): There are 20 species of Daucus, which grow in the temperate northern hemisphere. Cultivated carrots come from a subspecies of D. carota, D.c.sativus, which has a fleshy root. The more common subspecies is the one we see in the Loire, D.c.carota, and there are other subspecies. The habit of the umbel to strongly contract in fruit is indicative of D.c.carota, and it is particularly common on chalky soils.

    I am unaware of it causing photo reactive dermatitis, but other members of the family do - notably Giant Hogweed.

    Dennis - I am unaware of any problem wild carrot could cause to cows, although if it had a reputation as a contraceptive, dairy farmers would be wary of it. I wonder if your grandfather was conflating two related species though. There is a plant in the same family called cowbane, Cicuta virosa, which certainly kills cows in a very unpleasant way (it's a convulsant), although it is very rare now in the UK and all the known sites are fenced off. I don't know if it occurs in your part of the US, but there are 10 species of Cicuta occuring in the temperate north.

    It is interesting that the family wild carrots belong to contains both some of the most well loved culinary plants (celery, dill, coriander, fennel, parsley and more) and the two most poisonous plants in the British Isles (and probably Europe), one of which is extremely common (Hemlock Water Dropwort - as used by Socrates). The reason culinary parsley with curly leaves was developed was because there are too many lookalikes that are poisonous and could be growing as weeds in the garden.

  7. Thanks, Ken. I love Queen Anne's Lace!


  8. Yes, well that's all well and good but the big question is, do they help you see in the dark? Susan?

  9. Nicki- I don't know as much as Susan about carrots, but I'll answer you question about carrots and eyesight;-) You've never seen a rabbit wearing glasses, right?

    I love all this carrot talk. Thanks for the interesting post, Ken. BTW Queen Anne's lace and roses look really nice in flower arrangements. Ditto for QAL and day lilies.

  10. Nick: I think the answer is yes...and no. No in that the story about feeding British WWII pilots carrots to help them see in the dark was invented to disguise the fact that they had RADAR. Yes from the point of view that I assume they contain the yellow pigment necessary for preventing macular degeneration (although I believe spinach and other leafy greens are more effective).


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