Summer of Weeds: Salsify

Picking a favorite weed is challenging. If we dismiss entirely the idea that a person is not supposed to like weeds, the challenge is not that “favorite weeds” is an oxymoron; it is, instead, that it is impossibile to pick one weed among hundreds of weeds that is the most attractive, the most impressive, the most useful, the most forgiving, whatever. For me, salsify is a top contender.

Salsify and goatsbeard are two of several common names for plants in the genus Tragopogon. At least three species in this genus have been introduced to North America from Europe and Asia. All are now common weeds, widespread across the continent. All have, at some point, been cultivated intentionally for their edible roots and leaves, but Tragopogon porrifolius – commonly known as oyster plant or purple salsify – may be the only one that is intentionally grown in gardens today. Its purple flowers make it easy to determine between the other two species, which have yellow flowers.

As it turns out, I am not familiar with purple salsify. I don’t think it is as common in western North America as it is in other parts of the continent. In fact, the most common of the three in my corner of the world appears to be Tragopogon dubius, commonly known as western salsify. Tragopogon pratensis (meadow salsify) makes an appearance, but perhaps not as frequently. To complicate matters, hybridization is common in the genus, so it may be difficult to tell exactly what you are looking at.

western salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

Regardless, salsify is a fairly easy weed to identify. It is a biennial (sometimes annual, sometimes perennial) plant that starts out as a rosette of gray-green leaves that are grass-like in appearance. Eventually a flower stalk emerges, adorned with more grass-like leaves, branching out to form around a half dozen flower heads. Salsify is in the aster family, in which flower heads typically consist of a tight grouping of disc and ray florets. In this case, only ray florets are produced. The florets are yellow or lemon-yellow, and each flower head sits atop a series of pointed bracts which encase the flower (and the forming seed head) when closed. Examining the length of the bracts is one way to tell T. dubius (bracts extend beyond the petals) from T. pratensis (bracts and petals are equal in length).

Illustration of Tragopogon dubius by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

The flowers of salsify open early in the morning and face the rising sun. By noon, they have usually closed. This phenomenon is the reason behind other common names like noonflower and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Salsify’s timely flowering makes an appearance in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things: “Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five 0’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. … At noon, the goatsbeard closed.”

The seed heads of salsify look like over-sized dandelions. Each seed (a.k.a. achene) is equipped with a formidable pappus, and with the help of a gust of wind, seeds can be dispersed hundreds of feet from the parent plant. The seeds don’t remain viable for very long, but with each plant producing a few hundred seeds and dispersing them far and wide, it is not hard to see why salsify has staying power.

Open, sunny areas are preferred by salsify, but it can grow in a variety of conditions. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “goatsbeards can establish themselves in bare soil, amid grasses and old-field vegetation, and in heavy ground litter; such adaptability permits them to thrive across a range of early plant successional stages.” Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast lists the following sites as “habitat prefrences” of meadow salsify: “abandoned grasslands, urban meadows, vacant lots, rubble dumps, and at the base of rock outcrops and stone walls.” While generally not considered a noxious weed, Tragopogon species are commonly encountered and widely naturalized. Last summer on a field trip to Mud Springs Ridge near Hells Canyon, salsify was one of only a small handful of introduced plants I observed looking right at home with the native flora.

Seed heads of western salsify (Tragopogon dubius) before opening

All that being said, why is salsify one of my favorite weeds? Its simple and elegant form appeals to me. Its gray- or blue-green stems and leaves together with its unique, yellow flowers are particularly attractive to me. And its giant, globe-shaped seed heads, which seem to glisten in the sun, captivate me. Its not a difficult weed to get rid off. It generally pulls out pretty easily, and it’s a satisfying feeling when you can get it by the root. It’s a sneaky weed, popping up full grown inside of another plant and towering above it, making you wonder how you could have missed such an intrusion. The roots are said to be the most palatable before the plant flowers, so if you can spot the young rosette – disguised as grass and also edible – consider yourself lucky. I haven’t tried them yet, but I will. [Editor’s note: Sierra tells me that I have eaten them in a salad she made, but at the time I didn’t know they were in there so I don’t remember what they tasted like.] If they are any good, that will be one more reason why salsify is one of my favorite weeds.

Bonus excerpt from Emma Cooper’s book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, regarding Tragopogon porrifolius:

Salsify is often called the vegetable oyster, because its roots are supposed to have an oyster-like flavor although I suspect nobody would be fooled. The long roots are pale and a bit like carrots – they are mild and sweet and when young can be eaten raw. Mature roots are better cooked. Traditionally a winter food, any roots left in the ground in spring will produce a flush of edible foliage.

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Summer of Weeds: Pineapple Weed

“The spread of the fruitily perfumed pineapple weed, which arrived in Britain from Oregon in 1871, exactly tracked the adoption of the treaded motor tyre, to which its ribbed seeds clung as if they were the soles of small climbing boots.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants

Can a plant that is native to North America be considered a weed in North America? Sure. If it is acting “weedy” according to whatever definition we decide to assign to the word, then why not? Can “weeds” from North America invade Europe the same way that so many “weeds” from there have invaded here? Of course! Pineapple weed is just one such example.

Native to western North America and northeastern Asia, this diminutive but tough annual plant in the aster family can now be found around the globe. Matricaria discoidea gets its common name from the distinctive fruity scent it gives off when its leaves and flowers are crushed. Its scent is not deceptive, as it is yet another edible weed (see Eat the Weeds). Teas made from its leaves have historically been used to treat upset stomachs, colds, fevers, and other ailments.

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea)

Pineapple weed reaches as few as a couple centimeters to a little over a foot tall. Its leaves are finely divided and fern-like in appearance. Its flower heads are cone or egg-shaped, yellow-green, and cupped in light-colored, papery bracts. The flower heads lack ray florets and are composed purely of tightly packed disc florets. The fruits (i.e. seeds) are tiny, ribbed achenes that lack a pappus.

Compacted soils are no match for pineapple weed. It is often seen growing in hard-packed roadways and through small cracks in pavement, and it is undeterred by regular trampling. It is a master of disturbed sites and is commonly found in home gardens and agriculture fields. It flowers throughout the summer and is often confused with mayweed (Anthemis cotula); the telltale difference is that mayweed gives off a foul odor when crushed.

Meriwether Lewis collected pineapple weed along the Clearwater River during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In their book, Lewis and Clark’s Green World, Scott Earle and James Reveal write, “There is nothing in the expedition’s journals about the plant, but it would seem that there was little reason for Lewis to collect the two specimens that he brought back other than for its ‘agreeable sweet scent.’ It is otherwise an unremarkable, rayless member of the aster family.” The authors continue their mild ribbing with this statement: “The pineapple weed deserves its appellation, for it is a common weed – although a relatively innocuous one – that grows in disturbed places, along roadsides, and as an unwanted garden guest.”

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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Quote of the Week:

From Weeds and What They Tell (ed. 1970) by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer

“Weeds are WEEDS only from our human egotistical point of view, because they grow where we do not want them. In Nature, however, they play an important and interesting role. They resist conditions which cultivated plants cannot resist, such as drought, acidity of soil, lack of humus, mineral deficiencies, as well as a one-sidedness of minerals, etc. They are witness of [humanity’s] failure to master the soil, and they grow abundantly wherever [humans] have ‘missed the train’ – they only indicate our errors and Nature’s corrections. Weeds want to tell a story – they are natures way of teaching [us] – and their story is interesting. If we would only listen to it we could apprehend a great deal of the finer forces through which Nature helps and heals and balances and, sometimes, also has fun with us.”

Summer of Weeds: Henbit and Purple Deadnettle

There are weeds for every season. Now that we are heading into the hot days of summer, spring weeds (if they haven’t already) are fading. There is a parallel between them and the spring wildflowers we love. They start early, greening up and flowering even before there are leaves on the trees. They exploit the sun made available before deciduous trees and shrubs can hog it all, and they take advantage of the moisture in the soil brought by winter snowfall and spring rain. They thrive in cool temperatures, and their flowers provide early pollen and nectar for emerging pollinators. One major difference between spring ephemeral weeds and spring ephemeral wildflowers is that, despite having similar strategies and providing similar services, the spring weeds aren’t from here; and so we look down on them.

Two common, annual, spring weeds that are easily recognizable – but often mistaken for one another – are henbit and purple deadnettle. Both are in the genus Lamium and the family Lamiaceae (the mint family) and both arrived from Europe. Looking closely at the leaves is the best way to tell these two apart. The upper leaves of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) lack petioles and are round or oval with rounded teeth. The upper leaves of purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) are crowded around the stem, have short petioles, sharper teeth, and are more spade-shaped, coming to a point at the tip. The uppermost leaves of purple deadnettle are a distinct reddish-purple. Identify That Plant offers a great tutorial to help tell these and groundy ivy (another spring-occurring, annual weed in the mint family) apart.

henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Henbit prefers full sun and moist, rich soils. It can have either a prostrate or an erect growth habit. In urban environments it is commonly found in lawns, garden beds, and drainage ditches. It is common in agricultural crops and fallow fields as well. According to Weeds of North America, “henbit is poisonous to livestock, especially sheep, causing the animal to stagger;” it is also a host for aster yellows, tobacco etch, and tobacco mosaic viruses. Purple deadnettle inhabits similar sites, often forming a dense groundcover. While henbit and purple deadnettle are highly attractive to bees, they do not always require insect pollination and can self-pollinate instead. Each plant can produce dozens of seeds, and seeds remain viable in the soil for as long as 25 years.

Plants in the genus Lamium are commonly referred to as dead-nettles because they resemble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and other plants in the genus Urtica. Lamiums do not posses the stinging quality, and so they are “dead.”  The young leaves, shoots, and flowers of henbit and purple deadnettle are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. Check out Eat the Weeds for more details.

Illustration of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) circa 1970

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purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

Quote of the Week:

From Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

From a utilitarian perspective, a weed is any plant that grows by itself in a place where people do not want it to grow. The term is a value judgment that humans apply to plants we do not like, not a biological characteristic. Calling a plant a weed gives us license to eradicate it. In a similar vein, calling a plant invasive allows us to blame it for ruining the environment when really it is humans who are actually to blame. From the biological perspective, weeds are plants that are adapted to disturbance in all its myriad forms, from bulldozers to acid rain. Their pervasiveness in the urban environment is simply a reflection of the continual disruption that characterizes this habitat. Weeds are the symptoms of environmental degradation, not its cause, and as such they are poised to become increasingly abundant within our lifetimes.

A patch of dead-nettle (Lamium sp.) – photo credit: Amy Trampush (Thank you, Amy!)

Introducing the Summer of Weeds

I spent the first five months of this year posting almost exclusively about invasive species. There is still plenty more to say on the topic, and I’m sure I will get back to that. However, it is time now to dive into the topic that I really want to explore. Weeds.

There is definitely crossover between the two topics – many weeds are invasive species – but there are clear distinctions, too. Oftentimes, weeds as a category of plants are unfairly and unjustly lumped under the title “invasive,” but any plant can be a weed at any moment in time if a human says so. That’s the difference. A plant does not have to prove that it is causing any sort of ecological or economic damage to be called a “weed;” it just has to be growing where a human doesn’t want it to. Yet, too quickly a plant “out of place” is cursed at using words like “invasive” or “noxious” regardless of its origin or behavior. I know I’m being overly semantic about this, but it seems unfair (and incorrect) to lump any and all plants that are bothering us for whatever reason into categories that have legal definitions.

If you can’t already tell, I am obsessed with weeds. It’s a topic I have been thinking about fairly consistently for much of my adult life. For one thing, as part of my career I spend a huge portion of my time killing and controlling weeds. I comprehend fully the visceral reaction of seeing a garden overcome by weeds – the vile thoughts one can have towards a group of plants that are soiling what could otherwise be a beautiful landscape – and I know very well the backbreaking work and countless hours that go into removing uninvited plants (cursing the intruders along the way). I get why weeds are a problem, and I understand why they are a subject of so much vitriol. Yet, over the years I have developed a respect – even a love – for weeds (despite the fact that I still must remove them and that removing them continues to be an overwhelming task).

Unwanted plants have been following us around and getting in our way for millenia. Essentially, we are partners in crime. We intentionally and unintentionally bring plants from various parts of the world on our travels, and through disturbance we create conditions where introduced plants can settle in and thrive. Over time, some once beloved plants grow out of favor and transition from desirable to weedy. As our cycles of disturbance continue, we give early successional, opportunistic plant species a chance to perpetuate themselves, guaranteeing that we will keep such “weeds” with us forever. We reap what we sow; even though we generally don’t plant weeds on purpose, other actions ensure that they will be our constant companions.

The importance of weed control goes beyond the aesthetic. In horticulture and agriculture, weeds compete with crops for light, space, water, and nutrients. They also harbor pests and diseases, and their seeds can contaminate crops. In pastures and rangelands, some weeds poison livestock. Certain weeds are harmful to people, too. Other weeds are simply disruptive – getting tangled up in machinery, damaging infrastructure, blocking our vision along roadways, and even giving cyclists flat tires. Apart from all that, even if all weeds did was make our gardens look unsightly, I imagine we would still be pretty angry with them.

I am interested in weeds wherever they are, but the weeds that fascinate me the most are those that thrive in urban environments. Not necessarily the weeds in our yards, but the weeds that have escaped our fences and property lines; the ones in the margins. We see them in abandoned lots, along roadways, near irrigation channels, and in other neglected spaces. They pop up in the cracks of sidewalks, on rooftops, in the middle of decaying buildings, and anywhere else that people haven’t paid attention to in a while. Urban areas have, for the most part, been scraped of their native flora. Introduced species move in to fill that void. As Richard Mabey writes in his book about weeds, these plants “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it;” they are “the very essence of wildness.” Novel ecosystems, like those created by urbanization and human development, are with us whether we like it or not. There is a “wildness” to them that is unlike other cultivated and manicured areas maintained by humans. These urban wild places are worth a closer look.

So, what is the Summer of Weeds?

Put simply, it’s an exploration of weeds. Throughout the summer I will be profiling some of the weeds I come across in my daily life. I will include photos, a brief description, and some interesting facts about each species. I will also include quotes about weeds from various sources, as well as videos, links, resources, and whatever else I come across that seems worth sharing. I hope you enjoy it. If you have anything to add along the way – specifically any personal thoughts or stories to share about weeds – please do. You can contact me via the usual ways: in the comment section below, through the Contact page, or on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram. Happy Summer!