From Cut Flower to Noxious Weed – The Story of Baby’s Breath

One of the most ubiquitous plants in cut flower arrangements hails from the steppes of Turkey and neighboring countries in Europe and Asia. It’s a perennial plant with a deep taproot and a globe-shaped, multi-branched inflorescence loaded with tiny white flowers. In full bloom it looks like a small cloud hovering above the ground. It’s airy appearance earns it the common name baby’s breath, and the attractive and durable nature of its flowers and flower stalks, both fresh and dried, have made it a staple in the floral industry. Sadly, additional traits have led to it becoming a troublesome weed outside of its native range.

baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) via wikimedia commons

Gypsophila paniculata is in the family Caryophyllaceae – sharing this distinction with other cut flowers like carnations and pinks, as well as other weeds like chickweed and soapwort. At maturity and in full bloom, baby’s breath might reach three to four feet tall; however, its thick taproot extends deep into the ground as much as four times its height. Its leaves are unremarkable and sparse, found mostly towards the base of the plant and sometimes with a blue or purplish hue. The flowers are numerous and small, have a sweet scent to them (though not appreciated by everyone), and are pure white (sometimes light purple or pink).

Each flower produces just a few seeds that are black, kidney-shaped, and minuscule. Many of them drop from their fruits and land near their parent plant, but some are retained within their little capsules as the flower stalk dries and becomes brittle. Eventually a stiff breeze knocks the entire inflorescence loose and sends it tumbling across the ground. Its rounded shape makes it an effective tumbleweed, as the remaining seeds are shaken free and scattered far and wide.

baby’s breath flowers close up (via wikimedia commons)

Being a tumbleweed gives it an advantage when it comes to dispersing itself and establishing in new locations, but this is not the only trait that makes baby’s breath a successful weed. Its substantial taproot, tolerance to drought and a variety of soil conditions, and proclivity to grow along roadsides, in ditches, and abandoned fields also make it a formidable opponent. Mowing the plant down does little to stop it, as it grows right back from the crown. Best bets for control are repeated chemical treatments or digging out the top portion of the taproots. Luckily its seeds are fairly short-lived in the soil, so vigilant removal of seedlings and not allowing the plant to reproduce can help keep it in check. Baby’s breath doesn’t persist in regularly disturbed soil, so it’s generally not a problem in locations that are often cultivated like agricultural fields and gardens.

The first introductions of baby’s breath to North America occurred in the 1800’s. It was planted as an ornamental, but it wasn’t long before reports of its weedy nature were being made. One source lists Manitoba in 1887 as the location and year of the first report. It is now found growing wild across North America and is featured in the noxious weed lists in a few states, including Washington and California. It has been a particular problem on sand dunes in northwest Michigan, where it has been so successful in establishing itself that surveys have reported that 80% of all vegetation in certain areas is composed of baby’s breath.

baby’s breath in the wild (via wikimedia commons)

Invading sand dune habitats is particularly problematic because extensive stands of such a deep-rooted plant can over-stabilize the soil in an ecosystem adapted to regular wind disturbance. Plants native to the sand dunes can be negatively affected by the lack of soil movement. One species of particular concern is Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), a federally threatened plant native to sand dunes along the upper Great Lakes. Much of the research on the invasive nature of baby’s breath and its removal comes from research being done in this region.

Among numerous concerns that invasive plants raise are the affects they can have on pollinator activity. Will introduced plants draw pollinators away from native plants or in some other way limit their reproductive success? Or might they help increase the number of pollinators in the area, which in turn could benefit native plants (something known as the magnet species effect)? The flowers of baby’s breath rarely self-pollinate; they require insect visitors to help move their pollen and are highly attractive to pollinating insects. A study published in the International Journal of Plant Sciences found that sand dune sites invaded by baby’s breath attracted significantly more pollinators compared to uninvaded sites, yet this did not result in more pollinator visits to Pitcher’s thistle. According to the researchers, “a reduction in pollinator visitation does not directly translate to a reduction in reproductive success,” but the findings are still a concern when it comes to the future of this threatened thistle.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a plant commonly found in flower arrangements is also an invasive species, as so many of the plants we’ve grown for our own pleasure or use have gone on to cause problems in areas where they’ve been introduced. However, could the demand for this flower actually be a new business opportunity? Noxious weed flower bouquets anyone?

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Tea Time: Pine Needle Teas

Temperatures are cooling in the northern hemisphere, which has me looking forward to drinking more hot tea. Making tea is a simple way to try edible plants you’ve never tried before, which I have demonstrated in past posts about pineapple weed and chicory. Believe it or not, I’m interested in trying teas made from other plants besides weeds, which has led me to start a new series of posts. It’s tea time!

When you think of a pine tree, your first thought probably isn’t, “Hey, I could make some tea out of that.” Sure, pine trees are known for their pleasant scent; however, do you really want a tea that tastes like a Christmas tree or smells like the cleanser you mop your floors with? A mouthful of pine needles just doesn’t sound that appetizing. Luckily, tea made with pine needles has a considerably milder aroma and flavor than you might initially expect.

the needles of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora)

Pines actually have a number of edible parts. Young, male cones can be boiled and eaten, pine pollen can be used in a number of ways, and roasted pine seeds (also known as pine nuts) are commonly consumed and used to make things like pesto and hummus. In addition, the inner bark, sap, and resin all have a history of being used as food and medicine. So, why not the needles?

However, it should be noted that turpentine comes from pine trees, which is quite toxic if ingested or used improperly. Turpentine is made by distilling the sap and resins found in pine trees. The high concentration of the chemical compounds found in these products is what results in turpentine’s toxicity.

Another caveat is that the word “pine” is used as a common name for a few species that are not in the genus Pinus and thus are not true pines. Also, coniferous trees and shrubs are frequently referred to as or thought of as pines by people who aren’t in the know. Hence, always make sure that you positively identify any and all plant species before you consume them. Additionally, various sources advise avoiding the consumption of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and a handful of other pines, which may in fact be perfectly safe in moderation, but the counsel is worth keeping in mind.

To drill these points home, consider this passage from The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms:

Most [conifers] would be too strong-tasting and unpalatable to eat, but many can be used safely as flavorings or to make beverages and medicinal teas, as long as they are taken in moderation and in low concentrations. Exceptions are the yews (Taxus spp.), which are highly toxic, and ponderosa pine, a tree of dry western forests with long needles usually in clusters of three. Some indigenous people ate the inner bark and seeds of this pine, but they knew that pregnant women should not chew on the buds or needles because it would cause a miscarriage. Eating the foliage of this pine is known to cause abortion in late-term pregnant cattle and other livestock due to the presence of isocupressic acid, which has also been found in lodgepole pine (P. contorta) and Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi). Other pines, such as loblolly pine (P. taeda) of the southeastern United States should also be regarded with caution.

I chose to make tea from the needles of two species that have a long history of being used for this purpose: Korean or Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Pinus densiflora occurs in Korea and Japan, as well as parts of China and Russia, and has been given the name red pine thanks to its attractive red-orange bark. It produces needles in bundles of two and is a member of the subgenus Pinus, also known as the hard pines. Pinus strobus occurs mainly in the northeastern corner of the United States and the southeastern corner of Canada. It’s a member of the soft pines (subgenus Strobus) and produces needles in bundles of five. Both of these trees (and various cultivars of them) are commonly grown ornamentally outside of their native ranges.

the bark of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora)

To make the tea, I collected a handful of needles, chopped them in half or thirds and steeped them in hot water. Various sources that I read said not to boil the needles. The teas had a mild pine scent and a light citrusy flavor. I first made a tea from eastern white pine needles and accidentally added too much water. On my second try, using Korean red pine needles, I got the ratio better, and the tea didn’t taste so watered down. Some people add honey to pine needle tea, which I didn’t try this time around because I wanted to experience the taste of the needles. However, I think honey would be a nice addition.

Younger needles are said to be better than older needles for making tea, and I imagine that the time of year that the needles are harvested could have an impact on the flavor. The age of the needles likely determines, in part, its amount of vitamin C as well. Pine needle tea is said to be high in Vitamin C, which is another reason to give it a try.

the needles of eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)

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