Caught by the River

Queen Anne’s Lace

30th January 2010

words & illustration by Jonathan Newdick.

Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder are motoring from Oxford to Brideshead. The year must be about 1920. Evelyn Waugh is not specific but he does tell us that it was ‘. . . a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air was heavy with all the scents of summer . . .’
Mr Waugh may be unfashionable today yet no-one writes better of the beauty of pathos or the futility of love. But Mr Waugh is possibly a poor botanist. When he mentions fools’ parsley he is probably thinking of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, also called Queen Anne’s lace. It is the ubiquitous plant of roadsides and is in bloom from April to June. Meadowsweet begins to flower in June so it could be seen together with Queen Anne’s lace but it is more usually associated, as its name suggests, with meadows than roadsides.
Had I been editing Brideshead Revisited, back in 1945, I would have the car passing through banks of Queen Anne’s lace and nothing else. It is a fine romantic name and one splashed with Catholic / Protestant conflict – what better floral motif for Brideshead could there be? But it’s all too late. We can only accept the missed opportunity of Waugh and his editor at Chapman and Hall. Some authorities have suggested that the name of this tall but delicate perennial is far older than the English Queen Anne. Geoffrey Grigson in his Englishman’s Flora suggests that the queen in question may be St. Anna, mother of the Virgin, but I have always assumed her to be, or, I suppose, wanted her to be, the Anne who became Queen of England in 1702 – the tragic Anne of seventeen pregnancies and only one child surviving infancy.
This beautiful plant with the beautiful name is the food plant of several species of moth including the single-dotted wave whose caterpillars feed on it from September to April – a good reason for allowing the stems to stand in the hedgerows long after flowering – and yet another reason why local councils’ obsessions with suburbanisation and tidiness should sometimes be challenged.

Jonathan Newdick.