Summer is a marvelous time for gorgeous white blooms. It’s tempting to think they’d make such wonderful bridal decorations, particularly if they were surrounded by pretty yellow, pink, red, and blue beauties, also in bloom in the crushing heat.
Most white flowers are harmless…but those that are not are rather scary, so skip the bridal bouquets amass with them! Someone could end up in the hospital instead of the reception if you fail to heed this warning.
Let’s start with the harmless. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a native plant, blooming in early to mid-summer with the pretty flowers, which bundled together, form a nice, flat, surface that butterflies can just walk across. Its leaves are rather small and have a feathery appearance. This is a completely harmless plant, in fact, tea made from Yarrow has long been used to ease digestive issues like ulcerative colitis. It’s also useful for wounds, speeding healing enormously. Truly, Yarrow is a boon!
Then, there’s Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), of Elderberry Wine fame. Lovely, huge white blooms, drawing butterflies, bees, and moths like magnets. Soooo pretty!
Those flowers are edible and make a very nice Elderberry syrup. The berries make a nice wine, too. Those old ladies in the classic comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace,” who made their concoction for ‘lonely, elderly gentlemen’ had arsenic, strychnine, and “just a touch of cyanide” in their “they’ll never drink anything else” brew. It didn’t really need anything except the Elderberry plant to make their infamous wine because the entire plant, except flowers and berries, contains large amounts of cyanide. So, if you’re making Elderberry jam or wine – remove the seeds, they have it, too (peach and apple seeds also contain cyanide, among others).
Then, there’s Queen Anne’s Lace, a.k.a. Wild Carrot (Daucus carrota). Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot isn’t a native, but it’s still a very useful plant, both for humans and for butterflies.
As the name “Wild Carrot” implies, the roots are edible, and its leaves look eerily similar to carrot leaves in your vegetable garden. In the old days before reliable birth control, women sought this plant in late summer for its seeds, which they used to prevent pregnancy. Perhaps it worked, but, since it very closely resembles Poison Hemlock, many women who only hoped to avoid pregnancy died because they didn’t know the difference and ingested a powerful poison instead. Yikes!
Still, Queen Anne’s Lace is a favorite of the Black Swallowtail butterfly, which likes to lay her eggs on it to feed her young. So, as long as you stick to eating the roots, you’ll be okay (and, if you want birth control, talk with your doctor).
Next up is…Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Poison Hemlock is nothing like a Hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis, which is NOT poisonous). Consider its common name…Poison Hemlock is rather obviously poisonous. No kidding.
It likes damp places, so it’s not usually growing right next to Wild Carrot, which likes well-drained, if not actually dry, soil. Poison Hemlock is considered a noxious weed because it can kill cattle as well as humans (it doesn’t always kill, but it will make you so sick you might wish for that option).
Then…if you recognize this, you’ll know better. Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), lives up to its frightful common name. Nobody but Lucifer himself could possibly use this as a walking stick! Perhaps it would make a nice Shillelagh (Shillelaghs are thorny walking sticks with a knot used as a handle at one end. Many’s the Irish child who has feared that horror). Really, if you’re into instruments of torture, this is the plant for you. It’s only mildly poisonous, but there are easier, more deadly poisons if that’s your game.
Devil’s Walking Stick and Poison Hemlock are scary plants. But they’re Caspar the Friendly Ghost compared with Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), whose names, common and scientific, specifically refer to how huge it gets.
Giant Hogweed is a monster in every way. It can grow up to 20 feet tall – that’s two stories – and the stem itself can be 2 to 4” in diameter. Native to western Asia, the sap can cause severe blistering and burns to human skin when exposed to sunlight (it grows in full sun). Fortunately for us, cattle, sheep, etc., are unharmed and enjoy the young, shorter plants and help in its eradication.
If you encounter Giant Hogweed (it’s rare in Maryland) get away from the plant ASAP and call your extension agent, who will take steps to identify the plant and will contact other fully trained and qualified people, to remove the plant. Do Not Touch It Yourself.
The trick is to tell one from another and from other, “just chillin’ here, eh” white flowers of summer. Remember, white is a favorite color of moths, so it helps pollination, and just about all pollinators like white, too.
How to tell the Difference?
Your best bet is to look carefully at the height, flowers, leaves, and stems. Poison Hemlock has a bunch of white flowers, but a butterfly couldn’t walk across the entire mass the way it could with Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot. Poison Hemlock also never has the tiny red flower at its center the way Queen Anne’s Lace generally does (that red flower is the source of the name, “Queen Anne’s Lace.” Supposedly a Queen named Anne pricked her finger and a droplet of blood fell on the flower, and the flowers all honor her since). Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot is fairly short compared with Poison Hemlock, topping out at less than 3 feet, while Poison Hemlock is absolutely stunted at 2 feet, and frequently hits 10 feet tall.
And – fortunately – the seed heads look almost nothing alike. Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot always folds its seeds into a kind of a ball, or net, whereas Poison Hemlock will have them stuck out, apart from each other. Stems are good for identification, too. Also, Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot has a green, fuzzy stem. Poison Hemlock has a hairless stem, decorated, instead, with purple spots. Your plant has purple spots on the stem? Cover yourself completely, pull it out, and throw it in the trash. Immediately. And don’t forget to cover yourself, as you can get a serious rash from contact with Poison Hemlock.
To spot an Elderberry, look for huge white flowers in early summer, attached to what is clearly a woody shrub. The stems and branches will be fairly smooth, with none of those fierce thorns that give Devil’s Walking Stick its common name.
You actually want Devil’s Walking Stick? It is a native plant, with white flowers, of course. But it’s quite tall (up to 30 feet) and the bloom can be 3 feet high above the leaves, held above the plant like a flag. After that, look at the leaves. They are triply compound (for you botanists) but to the rest of us look heavy and unattractive, and, in keeping with its name, are prickly. Late summer/fall brings berries which are delicious to birds who leave behind red, lacy stalks. Stems and branches have sharp thorns – beware!
So, summer brides, perhaps choose white roses for your bouquet!
Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the blog straight to your inbox.