The beauty before us: Blackberries and queen anne’s lace

I spent a lot of my summer vacation days outside as a kid.  We didn’t have cable TV, and with only three stations coming in clearly, television didn’t offer much distraction.  Our Atari game system was good for hours of entertainment, shooting aliens, avoiding meteors, frog-jumping over cars on a highway… (children of the 70’s and early 80’s, you know what I’m talking about).  But in a house without air conditioning, sitting inside on July or August days was just asking to melt into a pile of sweat.  Instead, I explored the semi-wilderness outside our short stretch of suburban row houses: a patch of forest at the top of a hill between our plan and the next, the hillside itself covered in crown vetch to reduce erosion; a scruffy overgrown meadow full of spiders, grasshoppers, spittlebugs and wild strawberry plants; a raw open ditch behind our townhouses that all the kids called “the baseball field” but was really a wide oval of exposed shale excavated for an unfinished stretch of townhouses. 

In almost all my memories of those endless summer days, I’m alone, sitting in a shady tree or a patch of knee-high weeds, or out in the sun breaking apart shale into plate-like sheets (very satisfying!).  I’ve been trying and failing to remember how my sister, just one year older than me, spent her time.  We are so close in age but had very different interests as children. I can’t picture her sitting in a patch of wildflowers, watching a spider wrap up a small grasshopper, which may or may not have jumped into the web of its own choice.  The spiders that grabbed my attention most were big ones with a yellow stripe down their back that made webs with a zigzag ‘zipper’ from the center to one end.  We called them “banana spiders”, I have no idea why. This video matches my memories pretty well.

Time in my childhood summers was marked by what wild berries were ripe.  Ripe wild strawberries meant the joy of early summer, the end of the school year a recent memory and a seemingly endless number of days of freedom and laziness ahead.  Black raspberries (my favorite) ripen when memories of school had faded, and it seemed like summer was never-ending. Blackberries ripen when the air is hot and humid and the leaves of the trees are so intensely green they seem almost black under a cloudless sky.  This time of year, full to overflowing with light, heat, and life, is touched with just a hint of melancholy, because if summer can peak, it can also end. I love fall as much as I love summer, I just have a complicated relationship with change, when feelings of loss mix with excitement and anxiety about what lies ahead.

Cicadas start calling just as blackberries are turning from hard green knobs into soft full black fruits, and queen anne’s lace flowers begin blooming everywhere and anywhere. This weedy relative of the carrot grows very well in disturbed and marginal spaces like roadsides, yards and fields. A road near my house is lined with so many of these flowers that in early August their scent, usually faint, is easy to smell on the wind coming through the open car windows.  The scent, color and shape of the flowers attract beetles, flies, bees and wasps, which are brushed with pollen as they sip nectar from the base of each tiny floret. As the flower ages, it curls up toward the center and turning into a tiny tumbleweed that detaches from the plant, dispersing hundreds of seeds as it rolls away from its parent.  Each seed is covered in fine stiff hairs that easily stick to animal fur or socks, as I discovered repeatedly as a child, allowing the seed to hitch a ride to a new location.

queen anne’s lace flower (my picture)
queen anne’s lace seeds

As a kid I was intrigued by how each spray of tiny flowers in a queen anne’s lace array had a single dark flower right at its very center.  When I first noticed them, I thought these dark spots might be a tiny beetle or an ant sitting in the middle of each flower, but almost every flower I checked had one dark floret right in the middle, its color ranging from violet to a purple as dark as the blackberries that ripen when these flowers first start blooming. I recently found out that Charles Darwin was also intrigued by this tiny dot of color in the middle of these big white flowers, leaving me thrilled, and a bit disappointed, to learn that my own special discovery was written about 130 years ago by the great man himself.  Darwin thought that the dark central flower of queen anne’s lace probably had no functional purpose and was perhaps a remnant or holdover of a previously useful characteristic of the flower, rather like the toenails on a manatee’s front flippers.  Plant scientists are still trying to figure out if this floret plays a role in flower pollination.  Removing the dark floret doesn’t seem to reduce the number of insects that visit the flower (source 1, source 2), but it may change how often different kinds of insects visit.  This tiny dark flower might appear to other insects, as it did for me, like a small beetle or ant, which may attract other similar beetles in a kind of herd mentality (“if that one found something here and didn’t die, maybe I should go check that place out”), or it may warn off insects looking to lay eggs in a likely plant (“back off, I’ve already got an insect sitting on me, and it might eat you!”).

Bishop’s weed

Daucus carota is the Latin name for queen anne’s lace.  While awkward and foreign for most people, Latin names are necessary for understanding exactly which plant we are talking about.  Where I live (western New England), a plant with flowers that look like queen anne’s lace blooms in mid June rather than in early August.  Many people simply call the earlier flowers queen anne’s lace, but really they are bishop’s weed (a.k.a ‘ground elder’ or ‘goutweed’).  Both plants have flowers that are a wide bundle of smaller white florets that look a bit like an umbrella, which is why this type of flower is called an ‘umbel’, after the Latin word for ‘parasol’.  While queen anne’s lace is originally from Europe and Asia, it has been in North America long enough to be considered a ‘naturalized’ plant, rather than ‘invasive’ species like bishop’s weed.  Naturalized plants such as queen anne’s lace and chicory (Cichorium intybus), while not native to New England, ‘share space’ with native plants like fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Unlike naturalized plants, Invasive plants outcompete native species, dominating habitats and growing in large uniform patches.

chicory (my picture)
fleabane (my picture)

Far left: goldenrod (no flowers yet), middle back: fleabane, middle front: black raspberry,
mid frame: chickory, at right: queen anne’s lace (my picture)
Bishop’s weed flowers and young seeds

The name “bishop’s weed” can refer to a number of different plant species.  The “bishop’s weed” that has gotten out of control near my home is Aegopodium podagraria, which puts out dark green leaves that grow up to about a foot tall and in June produces white lacy flowers rising another 8-12 inches above that.  These flowers look very much like queen anne’s lace, but lack the central dark floret and don’t curl up into a ‘bird’s nest’ when they pass peak, and its seeds are smooth rather than covered with spiky fuzz .  Bishop’s weed makes a lovely carpet of green in the edges of the forest near my house, like a lush ornamental border.  In fact, this plant was brought to North America as an ornamental garden plant.  It spreads quickly, sending out underground runners like grass plants, allowing it to quickly dominate and outcompete other plants.  While these features make it very attractive as a groundcover in gardens, they also allow bishop’s weed to aggressively outcompete native species with its dense, leafy growth.  Eventually, if local insects and animals take a liking to this plant’s leaves, if soil organisms find its roots tasty, or if a new invasive ousts it from its current territory, bishop’s weed may lose its ability to dominate local species, slowly fading into the strange mix of invasive, naturalize and native species that call our local woods and fields ‘home’.  (See this link for a highly cited paper discussing the topic.)

Blackberries (my picture)

The blackberries I pick in my backyard are an example of how complicated the terms ‘native’, ‘invasive’ and ‘naturalized’ can be, especially in the plant world.  Blackberries are in the genus “Rubus”, which includes hundreds of species of raspberries, blackberries and other bramble berries.  While a number of raspberry species are native to North America, including my favorite black raspberries, blackberries probably originated in Eurasia but have since been widely introduced across the globe. Some species that have been introduced more recently, such as Himalayan blackberry in the western U.S, are actively invasive in their new territory, aggressively outcompeting native species.  Where two or more blackberry species overlap, they can hybridize and form new combinations.  Species native to Europe have interbred with local wild plants over time, and humans have played a more direct role, purposely creating new hybrid combinations like loganberries, boysenberries and marionberries . 

bucket of blackberries (my picture)

Are the blackberry canes in my backyard ‘native’ to my area?  No, probably not. Are they a naturalized wild plant?  I have no idea.  We didn’t plant them, but the previous owners may have. Blackberries are found throughout our region, and if we didn’t mow and weed our yard we would probably live in a blackberry/raspberry briar patch.  I know our stand of berry canes produces enough berries to feed us, our local birds, a resident groundhog, and at least one wandering black bear.  I also know the sound of cicadas coming through my window and the bucket of fresh-picked blackberries in my refrigerator means summer is at its peak. And I find myself just beginning to think seriously about the coming school year for my children and for myself, with a bit more anxiety than usual. And I feel a little melancholy that summer will eventually end.  Soon, though, I will be looking forward to the first signs of fall, and I will begin thinking about goldenrods and colorful autumn leaves, and apple season and cool crisp days. 

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