Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 25, 2007

Royal Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:15 pm

  As with all royalty, there are secrets regarding the Queen Anne’s Lace that may never be resolved. The public persona of this common plant, however, is very clear. You’ll see the familiar white blossoms gracing nearly every roadway and un-mowed field. She is found in your garden as both crop and uninvited weed.  She is better known to commoners throughout the world as the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) – the progenitor of the domestic garden carrot.

  Just in case you don’t know what I am talking about, here’s a picture of one of the flowering umbels of this plant (also, for further reference, here’s a link to a great website dedicated to it). The Wild Carrot has few of the obvious qualities of its domestic spawn – the Bugs Bunny Carrot. The familiar orange garden carrot is the result of intense genetic selection which focused on the root portion of the wild plant. The name “carota” means red in the Celtic tongue and comes from the red/orange pigments that make a carrot root so noble and carroty. The original wild plant is still with us and it has traveled across the globe where ever people have tread. It has a long white root, not an orange one, which is rather stringy in texture. You’ll need to pull it up out of the ground and give it a squeeze or a snap to allow the distinctive carrot smell to issue forth and proclaim its blue bloodness.  

  All of this domestic talk is fine, but let’s get to the scandalous part. There is a mysterious stain within the bloom and an uncertainty within the name.

   I used the term “umbel” when pointing out the flower of the Q.A.L., so I’d better explain. An umbel is the botanical term for a flat-topped cluster of flowers. The Queen Anne’s Lace is a classic example of such a thing. The flower head cluster is actually made up of 1,000 to 40,000 individual white flowers. As a whole they take on the form of a delicate white lace doily and this is the reason for the Queen Anne’s Lace moniker.

  The controversy about the name regards exactly which Queen Anne we are talking about. In some parts of the world, the lace making queen in question is Anne Stuart.  This Anne assumed the English throne in 1702 (see a picture here). In her portraits she doesn’t appear to be especially lacey or delicate, but she apparently engaged in lace making.  In other parts of the world, the Queen Anne name refers to the mother of the Virgin Mary and the Mother-in-law of Jesus. Among Saint Anne’s many patronages, lace-makers hold her in special regard.

  The English Queen was Anglican – ascending to the throne due to the Settlement Act intended to exclude Roman Catholics. Saint Anne is revered in the Catholic Church and has an especially devout following among the French Canadian population of North America (St. Anne’s parish being the oldest in Michigan).  So, it appears that this name thing may boil down to religious preference.

  Take a good close look at each umbel of the Wild Carrot (note the use of this neutral name in light of the above discussion) and you’ll see that there is a single odd purple flower at the very center (see here).  This misshapen and sterile bloom looks like a drop of dried blood on the lace. The “rest of the story” – as Paul Harvey would say – is that our royal lace maker (whoever she was) accidentally pricked her finger and a precious drop of her blood dripped onto the center. The lacey flowers forever bear this permanent mark as a reminder of the incident.

  I’d like to resolve this thing with a nice tidy answer revolving around this weird little purple androgynous flower, but I can’t.  It would be nice to say that the royal purple surely represents the English Queen, but equally as nifty to say that one drop of Saint Anne’s blood would be far more significant that that of Anne Stuart. I would like to say that the purple center bloom is there to attract insects. From a distance, the dark flower does make it appear that an insect is on the flower cluster.  Some have argued that this encourages other insects to come and nectar – a decoy of sorts. Unfortunately, this has not been proven and the reason for the structure is unknown.

  DNA will not help us in this quest to determine the mystery behind the tiny blood drop on the white lace.  It is royal blood and that will have to hold us for now.

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