When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with finding wild flowers in the woods around my house. I used to have dreams that I was walking through an area of the woods I went regularly, yet this time there were flowers growing everywhere! Bucket-fulls of them! How could I have missed them before? I was just here yesterday.
As an adult, when I started gardening seriously, carrots were a challenge for me… They grew so slowly and needed babied so much to get the seeds to sprout. They ended up forked and hairy from growing in our tough, rocky clay soil. I started having dreams that I was walking through the woods, and stumbled upon a patch of carrots growing that I must have forgotten I planted. I pulled them up, and they were big, beautiful carrots of all colors!
Are you noticing a pattern? I’m not quite sure what these dreams says about me, but with my new favorite wild edible – Wild Carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace – I feel like I have maybe realized both of these dreams at once. Since it is readily available in winter months, it is perfect for our Feasting in Times of Winter Scarcity series.
I have shocked many people over the last few weeks telling them that the beautiful Queen Anne’s Lace that they picked as a child is actually a wild carrot in its second year of life… But once they smell the leaves, they cannot deny the strong scent of carrot.
I never really suspected Queen Anne of her other existence either – I thought the plant was solely for the purpose of picking the flowers and putting them in water with food coloring so that they would absorb it and turn blue or green or red. I remember always being rather suspicious of that black dot in the middle. Was it a bug that was just pretending to be a part of the flower? Was it going to crawl away one day? I am not all too unconvinced that these suspicions weren’t planted by a an older sibling.
More recently, I was on a trip in Austria, and I suddenly saw wild carrots everywhere in their early pre-flower leafy state! I thought, why do I never see these in North Carolina? Turns out, I just wasn’t looking. Here’s how to spot them.
Description and Habitat: Wild carrots grow prolifically along roadsides, fields, or greenways in this area. Anywhere that you may have seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing last summer, it is likely to have dropped a seed that will be a wild carrot growing this winter. As you can see in the picture above, the leaves looks similar to those of Queen Anne’s Lace or also to carrot greens. They may be growing low to the ground as pictured, or they may be a little longer and more upright. If in doubt, pull off a leaf, and it should smell strongly of carrot. To harvest, you can either use a spade to dig up the root or gather up all the leaves and slowly twist and pull it out (but there’s more risk of breaking off the tip this way and losing it in the ground).
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: This is a good point to stress that (although this plant is very easy to identify) you should NOT eat any plant before you have positively identified it with a good plant guide (we recommend A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America (Peterson Field Guides)). The first time you eat it, it is best to only have a small amount so that you can be sure you do not have any adverse effects from it (which is probably a good idea with any food you are trying for the first time, even off a grocery store shelf!).
Harvest: This winter, when you wouldn’t think there would be much out there to eat in the wild, it’s actually a perfect time for biennial root crops (plants that take 2 years to fully mature into their flower state). In the winter or early spring, they have grown a full year, so their roots are nice and big. Because the weather is cold, they are storing most of their energy down in their root in the form of sugars making them as sweet as they’re going to get. Because they haven’t started putting their energies into sending up a flower stalk and producing seed yet, the root is not yet woody and drained of its yumminess (technical term).
Flavor and Use: Don’t expect the orange grocery-store variety. These carrots are white, but the flavor is very similar to what you’re used to in a carrot.
Use them however you would normally use carrots, like in a Wild Winter Salad.
As a bonus product – hang on to those greens! You can use them like you would parsley. Chop them up and add to salads, pasta, or to finish soups. Carrot greens tabbouleh, anyone? If that doesn’t interest you, at least throw them into your broth pot.
Wondering what all this Queen Anne nonsense is about? Where did the name come from? Well, Wild Carrot is not native to North America but came over with the English where it then spread and naturalized. Rumor has it, the plant is named after Queen Anne of England because of her mad lace-making skills and the flower’s resemblance to lace. That dark dot in the middle of the flower? Why, it is a drop of Queen Anne’s blood where she was pricked with a needle, of course! I’m not sure if that is a better or worse explanation to tell little children than that it’s a bug going to crawl away one day when they least expect it.
See our Resources Page for more recommendations on our favorite foraging guides!