What we now call Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) has been recorded as an oral contraceptive and early abortifacient for quite some time… a natural morning after pill, if you will. Yes, that common roadside weed, which can now be found on every continent, has been utilized for at least two thousand years as an effective emmenagogue and anti-fertility agent.
That first written mention comes from De Mulierum Affectibus, a gynecological text written in the tradition of Hippocrates (but likely not actually authored by him). It states that the wild carrot is an effective abortifacient (Riddle 1997).
Dioscorides, writing about it next, wasn’t as direct. After describing its appearance and the small purple flower that forms in the center he noted that:
The seed induces the menstrual flow, taken as a drink (or inserted as a pessary), and is good in liquid medicines for frequent painful urination, dropsy, and pleurisy, as well as for the bites and strikes of venomous creatures. The root (also being urinary) is applied to stir up sexual intercourse (Dioscorides, De Materia Medica)
And Pliny the Elder agreed, stating in his work Natural History that:
the seed of this plant, pounded and taken in wine reduces swelling of the abdomen… to such a degree as to restore the uterus to its natural condition (Pliny the Elder. Natural History)
as well as affirming that it was utilized as an aphrodisiac as well.
In his 1653 work Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpeper described the wild carrot as
belong[ing] to Mercury, and therefore break wind, and remove stitches in the sides, provoke urine and women’s courses…I suppose the seeds of them perform this better than the roots (Culpeper 1653)
And a recipe written shortly after by Joseph Pitton De Tournefort to “provoke menstruation” required:
two drams of the seed infused in white wine and drunk [to cure] hysterical fits or fits of the mother
Later Mrs. Grieve notes their use in her Modern Herbal:
The seeds are carminative, stimulant and very useful in flatulence, windy colic, hiccough, dysentery, chronic coughs, etc. The dose of the seeds, bruised, is from one-third to one teaspoonful, repeated as necessary. They were at one time considered a valuable remedy for calculus complaints. They are excellent in obstructions of the viscera, in jaundice (for which they were formerly considered a specific), and in the beginnings of dropsies, and are also of service as an emmenagogue (Mrs. Grieve 1931)
It turns out they were all right (remembering, of course, that once sensibilities regarding pregnancy and termination changed the term emmenagogue can usually be understood to work as an abortifacient) . Modern animal testing has shown that administering QAL at a dosage between 80 mg and 120 mg within six days of coitus results in a 100% reduction of implantation in the uterus (Sharma 1976). Even more interestingly,
in China studies found the seeds block the synthesis of the pregnancy hormone progesterone in pregnant animals, causing termination (Riddle 1992).
Progesterone is necessary to maintain a viable pregnancy. Specifically, when ovulation occurs, the ovary (through the corpus luteum) begins to produce progesterone. This increase of hormones causes the endometrium of the uterus to change and thicken into a favorable environment for implantation of a potentially fertilized egg. If the body does not detect the presence of a fertilized ovum, progesterone production drops off sharply and this rapid decrease causes the lining to weaken and eventually shed – menstruation. Based on the Chinese study, it is likely that QAL seeds are an effective birth control measure when taken shortly after coitus since it would suppress the necessary progesterone needed to sustain implantation. This is similar to the animal testing which found:
the action is such that the implantation process is disrupted and a fertilized ovum either will not be implanted or, if it has been implanted for only a short period, will be released (Riddle 1997).
It also demonstrates how time sensitive dosage of the QAL is since applications of QAL between eight and ten days of coitus resulted in no significant effect on the number of viable pregnancies in the animal study (Sharma 1976).
Interestingly, modern woman are using the seeds as an fertility measure, usually in places where access to birth control is scarce. Rural populations in India chew the seeds as a way to control fertility and women in the mountains of North Carolina have reported seed usage after every sexual encounter with 100% success noting that:
before the seeds are taken… they must be crushed, otherwise they go through… without absorption (Riddle 1997).
Out of all the herbal fertility knowledge I’ve studied it seems the use of QAL has remained the most intact and utilized. Even in antiquity, it was given that the seeds were the most effective part of the plant and noted that the seeds worked best when crushed or pounded before administering.