My mother loved white flowers— specially white lilacs and white roses. I, on the other hand, thought white a rather dull colour: bridal yes, but also vaguely funereal. White hydrangeas, white gladiolas, white chrysanthemums, meh. White seemed artificial, impersonal, no real kick of its own, not like glowing rugosa roses or wildly cheerful black eyed Susans , not like shocking red bee balm.
But a love of white flowers, medicinal white flowers in particular, has crept over me of late, like a slow tide. Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucas carota or wild carrot) is truly lace! Its umbel is stunningly delicate, a fractal of blossoms with that tiny deep purple dot in the center to attract insects (that dot was said to be the drop of blood Queen Anne shed when she pricked her finger tatting lace).
With its hairy green stem, single umbel, and lovely carroty smell, it’s extremely important to distinguish Queen Anne’s lace from its deadly cousins, poison hemlock (Conium maculata) and water hemlock. They resemble each other, but poison hemlock is usually much bigger, has a smooth stem with purple blotches, multiple umbels and, unlike Daucas carota, it stinks! Don’t go near water hemlock either. Both are poisonous.
Back to the queen. I’ve just now learned (from the internet of course) that you can make Queen Anne’s lace jelly, which seems a very genteel thing to serve on a scone, with a porcelain cup of tea. You can also blend a tasty soup from the roots of wild carrot, this I know first hand, though I recommend throwing a few tame carrots into the mix as well, for the sake of flavour.
Queen Anne’s lace is exquisite, but I can’t help wondering why she so often shows up in the same places and at about the same time as homelier, stubbier, but not unsimilar looking yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Is the queen showing off? Of course not. I am giving these harmonious plants human characteristics. If you stand quite still in a gathering of various wild flowers you can sense the interconnection between them, almost like a faint hum… Nevertheless, at first glance yarrow seems far plainer and less gorgeous than Queen Anne’s lace. Yarrow’s dense clusters are crude compared to the frothy snowflake complexity of the queen’s blossom. Yet make no mistake; yarrow is a giant in the medicinal plant world. What’s more, with her light feathery green leaves, and her tiny daisy-like florets, yarrow’s beautiful in her own way.
Yarrow’s Latin name is Achillea millefolium which connects her to the Greek hero, Achilles. One myth has it that the hero’s mother dipped him in an infusion of yarrow when he was an infant, holding him firmly by the heels. Such was the potency of this herb that years later Achilles the soldier was protected from all injury thanks to his mom, protected except in the one place where she had held him, the one place yarrow hadn’t touched— his heel. And that unprotected spot was his undoing. Thus, yarrow has come to be associated with protection and boundaries.
Another story claims that the Trojan War, and perhaps many other battles, were fought in fields of yarrow so that the plant might be used to staunch bleeding wounds. It is a vulnerary herb and can coagulate blood almost instantly. You must be careful of course that the wound in question is entirely clean before applying a clean cluster of yarrow to the affected spot. But it is an incredibly effective healer; I know this from my own experience as well as the experiences of others.
Yarrow helps with the common cold as well. I’ve made teas from yarrow, peppermint and lemon balm for various friends and they’ve told me their condition improved. Yarrow also repels mosquitoes. A watered down yarrow tincture in a spray bottle does a fairly good job of keeping the bugs away, not perhaps as potent as Hector’s eucalyptus laced “fly dope,”) but still decent.
I love yarrow and find the heady earthy scent of it intoxicating. Yarrow smells like summer! It’s got a weed’s pushiness of course, barging into flower beds without even asking. But I have a hard time pulling it up. I tell yarrow, just as I tell that big splat of plantain there by the geraniums, ‘I’m glad to see you both, and I guess you can stay, but really, some of your infants have to go.’
And there are more white flowers. A few weeks ago I met delicate-scented meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) for the first time at Bridget’s old farm house and snipped off a whole bag full of the blossoms, trying not to offend burrowing bees. Meadowsweet is anti inflammatory and also a remedy for acid reflux.
Just yesterday I met valerian (Valeriana officinalis), her glory days past, her clusters dry and brown. But what a heavenly fragrance! I encountered that magical scent a while back before I knew what I was looking at, what I was inhaling. Now I’m curious about her. Valerian’s a nervine, but apparently a tincture of her root puts you to sleep OR wakes you up! depending on your intention—is this even possible? Can one’s intention sway the chemical effect of a medicinal herb? Her root by the way (the part you use) is as stinky as her blossoms are fragrant.
July is almost over and now on my rambles I am looking eagerly for a tiny white flower called eyebright (Euphrasia). He isn’t entirely white. One petal has a small smudge of yellow on it, and the top curled-back petal is faintly lavender, plus this little flower has black lashes you can barely make out even with a magnifying glass.
What you see when you find eyebright in the ditch is a sprinkle of white. My eye has been bothering me off and on for over a month, and a tea of those eyebright blossoms, no bigger than specks, will soothe my eye; I feel sure of it.
There are many many more white medicinal flowers. And so I say, Bloom on white flowers, and let no one, least of all me, ever call you meh again!