By Savayda Jarone, Herbalist
This article was inspired by the common occurrence of wild carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace, lining roadsides at this time. It offers us food and medicine, and is a great plant to lead us into consideration of poisonous plants.
The system for categorizing living organisms is called Taxonomy. Living things such as bacteria, plants, mushrooms, and animals are grouped into Kingdoms, and then further organized into smaller groups based on similarities. Plants and animals are further divided into families, with plants having family trees like ours.
There are approximately 450 plant families worldwide, made up of 385,000 different species. Of these, 17 families produce 80% of our food and medicinal plants.
Just as members of human families share traits, so too, do the plants belonging to a particular family. They have botanical features in common in their appearance and growth patterns, plus they contain the same or similar molecules, offering food, medicine, and potential poisons.
The Umbelliferae family is the easiest to recognize. It includes familiar plants such as carrots, celery, fennel, parsnips, parsley, angelica, cumin, lovage, anise, dill, caraway, and coriander. It is distinguished by the shape of the flowers, which look like upside-down umbrellas.
Wild carrot (Daucus carota), the ancestor of the common carrot, is native to Europe and parts of Asia, and is widely naturalized around the world, including here in Nova Scotia. It has a broad white flower that resembles lace, sitting on top of a tall stem, with feathery leaves. The flower head folds in on itself in late summer in a bird’s nest shape, where hundreds of seeds ripen by the end of summer.
The seeds and roots are edible. I use the seeds in teas or as a spice, with a flavour similar to cumin. The roots are smaller than garden carrots and are white, with a strong carrot odour and flavour. I dehydrate and grind them to add to soup stocks, especially for carrot soup, and as a seasoning for roasted vegetables and coleslaw.
The Poisonous Cousins
There are a few famously poisonous cousins to wild carrot – water hemlock, poison hemlock, and giant hogweed. Water hemlock grows here in NS, usually along streams or ponds. It looks almost identical to wild carrot; the main differences can be found on the stems and in the smell of the roots. Poison hemlock is native to Europe; it was the poison used to execute the ancient philosopher Socrates.
Giant hogweed shows up here in NS on a regular basis, but doesn’t usually get a chance to spread due to eradication efforts. As the name suggests, this plant can grow up to 10 ft tall, and spreads easily by thousands of seeds. The sap contains compounds called furanocoumarins that are activated by sunlight, and cause severe burns and blistering to the skin.
Most members of the Umbelliferae family contain varying amounts of furanocoumarins, so care is needed by sensitive individuals even when handling plants such as fennel, parsnip, and carrots.
This plant family is easy to grow, and will spread through self-seeding, so unless you want a garden take-over, be sure to trim the flowers before they go to seed. I learned this with dill this year – now I have lots for pickling! : )
(For more information, go to https://bloominstitute.ca).