Plants Can Be Deceiving: Poison Hemlock vs. Queen Anne's Lace

I grew up around Queen Anne’s Lace.  It was one of the first flowers I could easily identify as a child, and I know that I picked several bouquets of it for my mother from the roadside (along with its oft companion, chicory).  My dad, an Eagle Scout, taught me that it was edible; although I know I preferred learning about milkweed – another fun plant to play with as a child.

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of (false) information swirling around about Queen Anne’s Lace being poisonous. 

Having fond memories of the flower, and being relatively sure that I’d even eaten it as a child, I did some fact-checking.

First, Queen Anne’s Lace is NOT poisonous: it is perfectly edible. 

In fact, “Queen Anne’s Lace” is actually just a common name for  Daucus Carota, which also goes by the name “wild carrot.”  Generally speaking, once you can see the flower, the carrot is too mature to eat because of texture, not because of any danger.  I suspect this is why many people associate the younger plant (pre-flower) with the name “wild carrot” and the older plant as “Queen Anne’s Lace.” 

Here are the leaves of the plant:

Queen Anne's Lace

Without the flower, it is much easier to recognize as “wild carrot.”  Notably, the leaves could still be used in a salad even after the carrot is no longer optimal.

The problem is that there is a look-alike plant, Poison Hemlock, which is giving Queen Anne’s Lace a bad name. 

As you might expect, Poison Hemlock is poisonous – even to the touch.  Ingestion can be deadly. 

So, before you go harvesting, here is how you can tell the plants apart.  First, Queen Anne’s Lace (photo on left) has a green, hairy stalk.  Poison Hemlock has a smooth stalk with purple or black spots and/or streaks on it (photo on right). 

Queen Anne's LacePoison Hemlock

[Reddish-purple markings on smooth stems, by Melody Rose]

Also, Queen Anne’s Lace generally has one dark flower in the middle of the bloom.  Unfortunately, that is not always a good tell since the dark flower is not always present and is not always visible.  However, Queen Anne’s Lace does always have a primary flower at the top of the stalk (photo on left).  Poison Hemlock blooms in clusters (photo on right). 

Queen Anne's lacePoison Hemlock

[Entire Queen Anne's Lace plant 2-3 feet tall, by JonnaSudenius]

[Clusters of all-white hemlock flowers in curved umbrellas, by Angela Carson]

Finally, if the stalk is broken, Queen Anne’s Lace smells like a carrot; whereas Poison Hemlock smells musty or mousey.  Basically, if you are harvesting the plant for salads, make sure to take a whiff before serving your guests.  If you smell something bad, wash your hands immediately and consider calling poison control.  If you have consumed any of the Poison Hemlock, seek immediate emergency medical attention. 

If you find any Poison Hemlock on your property, remove it.  You do not want to be the cause of neighborhood children exposing themselves to what they might mistakenly believe is Queen Anne’s Lace.  (Not only for moral reasons but also for lawsuit-related reasons.)  But be sure to wear gloves and a face mask during the process and do not compost the plant.