Summer of Weeds: Plantains

This is a revised version of two ethnobotany posts that appeared previously on Awkward Botany: White Man’s Foot, part one and part two. Plantains have a long history of ethnobotonical uses, as well as a bad reputation of being pesky, hard-to-eliminate weeds. The two most common introduced plantain species in North America are broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata). Wherever our daily travels take us, chances are there is a plantain growing nearby.

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Plantago major is in the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) a family that consists of at least 90 genera, including common ornamental plants like Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago, commonly known as plantains, consists of around 200 species distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot. Along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

common plantain (Plantago major)

Common plantain starts by forming a rosette of broad leaves usually oriented flat against the ground. The leaves are egg-shaped with parallel veins; occasionally, leaf margins are faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 centimeters tall or taller with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated and highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds; an entire plant can produce as many as 15,000 seeds. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

Common plantain prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so common in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (both natural and human caused). It is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Illustration of three Plantago species from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) circa 1970

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. It has also been used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. It is for this reason that P. major and other Plantago species have been used to treat such a diverse number of ailments. The claims are extensive and worth exploring. You can start by visiting the following sites:

Excerpts about plantains from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

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

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

An excerpt from Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

“Plantain, ‘the mother of worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

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Ethnobotany: The Henna Tree

A hair dye used in pre-dynastic Egypt is still used today. This enduring plant-based dye has found its way into a great number of cultures going back as long as 6000 years. Its popularity is thanks in part to the broad distribution of the plant itself, but is largely a result of the diverse religious traditions that have incorporated the dye into their rituals. The plant’s use in such traditions continues, while its current popularity extends well beyond that.

Lawsonia inermis is the only species in its genus. It is a member of the plant family, Lythraceae, a family that includes crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia), cigar plants (Cuphea), and pomegranates (Punica). L. inermis has many common names, including mignonette tree and Egyptian privet. It is most commonly known as, henna, a term that refers to the plant itself, the dye derived from the plant, and the body art made using the dye.

Henna is a shrub or small tree that reaches a height of about 6 meters. The leaves are smooth, elliptically-shaped, and oppositely-arranged on branches that are spine-tipped. Inflorescences are many-branched with numerous small, fragrant flowers. The most prominent features of the flowers are four sepals forming a bowl shape and several white to red stamens reaching towards the sky. The fruits are small, round, brown capsules full of tiny seeds. Henna thrives in dry environments with poor soil; however, it does not tolerate frost. It occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, western and southern Asia, and northern Australasia. Cultivation by humans has broadened its distribution well beyond its original boundaries.

Lawsonia inermis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Lawsonia inermis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Henna has been used to dye the skin, nails, and hair of women and men in many cultures and religions across its area of natural distribution and beyond. Its use has been especially common among women as part of fertility and marriage celebrations. The plant’s dye may have been first discovered around the mouths of browsing livestock – the persistent red-orange color having the appearance of blood. Henna plants are drought-deciduous, but they burst back to life when rain returns, producing abundant new branches, leaves, and flowers. This period of growth coincides with celebrations of marriage and fertility and may explain why it found common use in such traditions.

Dyes are made by crushing dried leaves into a fine powder and then mixing it into a paste using water, lemon juice, tea, or other liquids. A soap or shampoo is produced when henna is mixed with plant extracts containing saponin, and the addition of certain essential oils can enhance the performance of the dye. The compound in the leaves that produces the red-orange dye is called lawsone and is found in varying concentrations depending on the conditions in which the plant was grown. High heat and low soil moisture is said to produce the highest levels of lawsone. More than just a dye, lawsone also has antifungal properties and strongly absorbs UV light, thus its application is beyond cosmetic as it has proven useful against fungal diseases like athlete’s foot and as a sunscreen. And that’s just the beginning.

Henna applied to hair - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Henna applied to hair – photo credit: wikimedia commons

A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology by Semwal, et al. reveals that nearly a hundred phytoconstituents (or “biologically active compounds”) have been isolated from all parts of the henna plant. Henna has long been used medicinally to treat a wide range of ailments, and while it may not be an effective treatment for all that it has been historically used for, it has been found effective for certain things and has great potential for further use.

In the paper, the authors review dozens of studies exploring the many “biological activities” that henna is claimed to have, which include “antifungal, antibacterial, virucidal, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anticancer properties,” etc. Research into these properties is limited and has been “complicated and hampered” by the widespread practice of adding other ingredients (some of them harmful) to henna products. In order for henna’s “therapeutic potential” to be properly explored, the authors advise identifying and standardizing the plant’s active components.

Henna continues to be used in cultures across the world and is particularly prominent in Hinduism and Muslim practices. It is most commonly used to dye hair and create temporary body art (also known as mehndi). Henna art is often applied to the hands and feet, where the skin is thick and absorbs more of the lawsone. It is applied as a paste and either squeezed through a plastic cone or syringe or painted on with a stick or brush. The longer the paste is left on, the darker the stain will be. After a week or so the henna begins to fade as old skin cells slough off.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

In ancient cultures, henna was thought to ward off the Evil Eye as well as bring good luck and blessings, a trait known as baraka. This belief is part of the reason why henna was incorporated into marriage ceremonies and other religious rituals. Because of henna’s antifungal, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties, etc., real benefits are seen when henna is applied to various parts of the body. Semwal, et al. argue that a scientific understanding was not necessary for “recognition of benefit.” Today however, “scientific investigation and quantification of henna’s ‘baraka’ should expand and optimize these traditional qualitative understandings.”

Because of henna’s widespread use and long history, it is not feasible to fit henna’s entire story into a single blog post. Henna is worth exploring on your own. Here are a few more interesting tidbits for now. In Semwal, et al.’s summary there is a mention of henna twigs being “rubbed over the teeth for effective dental self-care” – something to keep in mind in case you find yourself without a toothbrush, and a henna plant happens to be nearby. A paper published in a 1993 issue of Thaiszia – Journal of Botany discusses the historical use of henna in the Balkans. Slavs in the area reportedly treated typhoid fever using a mixture of henna and “the juice of twenty heads of garlic” heated in water. Finally, henna has been used to dye many things, including leather, cloth, and animal fur. Persians have long used henna to dye the manes, tales, and hooves of their horses and other animals. A practice that continues today.

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What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part four

What Is a Plant?

Part one and two of this series have hopefully answered that.

Why should you care?

Part three offered a pretty convincing answer: “if it wasn’t for [plants], there wouldn’t be much life on this planet to speak of.”

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and are a principle component of most habitats. They play major roles in nutrient cycling, soil formation, the water cycle, air and water quality, and climate and weather patterns. The examples used in part three of this series to explain the diverse ways that plants provide habitat and food for other organisms apply to humans as well. However, humans have found numerous other uses for plants that are mostly unique to our species – some of which will be discussed here.

But first, some additional thoughts on photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize thanks to the work accomplished by very early photoautotrophic bacteria that were confined to aquatic environments. These bacteria developed the metabolic processes and cellular components that were later co-opted (via symbiogensis) by early plants. Plants later colonized land, bringing with them the phenomena of photosynthesis and transforming life on earth as we know it. Single-celled organisms started this whole thing, and they continue to rule. That’s just something to keep in mind, since our focus tends to be on large, multi-cellular beings, overlooking all the tiny, less visible beings at work all around us making life possible.

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when considering what use plants are to humans. The domestication of plants and the development of agriculture are easily among the most important events in human history. Agricultural innovations continue today and are necessary in order to both feed a growing population and reduce our environmental impact. This is why efforts to discover and conserve crop wild relatives are so essential.

Plants don’t just feed us though. They house us, clothe us, medicate us, transport us, supply us, teach us, inspire us, and entertain us. Enumerating the untold ways that plants factor in to our daily lives is a monumental task. Rather than tackling that task here, I’ll suggest a few starting points: this Wikipedia page, this BGCI article, this Encylopedia of Life article, and this book by Anna Lewington. Learning about the countless uses humans have found for plants over millennia should inspire admiration for these green organisms. If that admiration leads to conservation, all the better. After all, if the plants go, so do we.

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This one of the many reasons why plant conservation is so important. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This is one of the many reasons why plant conservation is imperative. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Gaining an appreciation for the things that plants do for us is increasingly important as our species becomes more urban. Our dense populations tend to push plants and other organisms out, yet we still rely on their “services” for survival. Many of the functions that plants serve out in the wild can be beneficial when incorporated into urban environments. Plants improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, help manage storm water runoff, create habitat for urban wildlife, act as a windbreak, reduce soil erosion, and help save energy spent on cooling and heating. Taking advantage of these “ecosystem services” can help our cities become more liveable and sustainable. As the environmental, social, and economic benefits of “urban greening” are better understood, groups like San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest are convening to help cities across the world go green.

The importance of plants as food, medicine, fuel, fiber, housing, habitat, and other resources is clear. Less obvious is the importance of plants in our psychological well being. Numerous studies have demonstrated that simply having plants nearby can offer benefits to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, urbanization and advancements in technology have resulted in humans spending more and more time indoors and living largely sedentary lives. Because of this shift, author Richard Louv and others warn about nature deficit disorder, a term not recognized as an actual condition by the medical community but meant to describe our disconnect with the natural world. A recent article in BBC News adds “nature knowledge deficit” to these warnings – collectively our knowledge about nature is slipping away because we don’t spend enough time in it.

The mounting evidence for the benefits of having nature nearby should be enough for us to want to protect it. However, recognizing that we are a part of that nature rather than apart from it should also be emphasized. The process that plants went through over hundreds of millions of years to move from water to land and then to become what they are today is parallel with the process that we went through. At no point in time did we become separate from this process. We are as natural as the plants. We may need them a bit more than they need us, but we are all part of a bigger picture. Perhaps coming to grips with this reality can help us develop greater compassion for ourselves as well as for the living world around us.

Poisonous Plants: Heartbreak Grass

An Asian vine known to be deadly poisonous has been in the news lately. Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian banker turned whistleblower who provided information on tax fraud committed by the Russian state and the Russian Mafia, mysteriously died while jogging back in November 2012. Last year, a botanist at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was called in to help with the ongoing investigation. Analyses revealed traces of a compound found in Gelsemium elegans, suggesting that Perepilichny had been poisoned and calling into question the orignal claim that there was no foul play in his death.

Gelsemium is a genus in the family Gelsemiaceae. It is composed of three species, two of which are native to North America (G. rankinii and G. sempervirens). Gelsemium elegans is native to China and Southeast Asia. All species are poisonous due to a number of alkaloids found in virtually all parts of the plant and particularly concentrated in the roots and leaves. The most toxic and abundant compound is gelsemine, an alkaloid related to strychnine.

Gelsemium elegans, commonly known as heartbreak grass, is a twining vine with oppositely arranged, narrowly ovate leaves and yellow to orange flowers with five petals that are fused near the base. It occurs in thickets and scrubby forests. According to news reports (NPR and ABC News), it has a history of being used in assassinations by Chinese and Russian contract killers. Finding traces of it in Perepilichny’s body understandably raises questions about his death. The investigation continues, and the Kew botanist is now a “star witness.” 

Gelsemium elegans (image credit: Flora of China)

Gelsemium elegans (image credit: Flora of China)

Poisoning by heartbreak grass is not a pleasant experience. Its affects can be felt soon after ingestion and, depending on the amount ingested and the time that lapses between ingestion and treatment, death – usually by asphyxiation – can be imminent. The Hong Kong Journal of Emergency Medicine reported on two cases of Gelsemium elegans poisoning, in which a husband and wife consumed the plant after mistaking it for the medicinal herb, Mussaenda pubescens. The 65 year old woman became dizzy, weak, and nauseous thirty minutes after consuming the plant. Then she went unconscious. Quick medical attention saved her life. She was released from the hospital eight days later, after spending time in intensive care and undergoing various treatments. Her 69 year old husband experienced similar dizziness and weakness, but promptly vomited and called for an ambulance.

The report states that “ingestion of G. elegans is highly poisonous regarding its neurological and respiratory depressive effects,” and that “early and active respiratory support is the key to successful resuscitation.” The report also wisely warns: “People should best avoid eating any wild plants because of the similar external appearance of certain poisonous and non-poisonous species.” Proper and skilled identification is paramount, especially where plants are growing so closely together that they intertwine, “leading to inadvertent ingestion.”

All Gelsemium species have been used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments. If used properly, they may provide effective treatments; however, in their book, The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms, Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas state – regarding the medicinal use of G. sempervirens – that the “plant [is] considered very dangerous for herbal use.” They also list the plant as a skin and eye irritant and claim that the flower’s nectar produces poisonous honey.

gelsemium sempervirens 1

Gelsemium sempervirens

Commonly known as Carolina jasmine and yellow jessamine, G. sempervirens is a woodland plant found in west Texas and throughout the southeastern United States. It is an attractive, evergreen, perennial vine with yellow, fragrant, funnel-shaped flowers and is grown as an ornamental in its native region and beyond. Most poisonings occur when the stems and leaves are consumed, usually as some kind of “herbal preparation;” however, the Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants claims that “there are cases of children who were poisoned after sucking on the flowers.” Headaches, dizziness, blurred visions, dry mouth, and difficulty speaking and talking are a few of the initial symptoms experienced after ingesting this plant. When cases are severe, muscles in the body experience weakness, spasms, and contractions. Symptoms, in other words, are akin to strychnine poisoning, and barring prompt and proper medical care, results can be similarly deadly.

More Poisonous Plants Posts:

The Nippleworts of Camassia Natural Area

This is a guest post. Words and illustration by Mesquite Cervino.

At the end of a residential neighborhood that is barely off the 205 in the hills of West Linn, Oregon is a small, 26 acre preserve called the Camassia Natural Area. The defining features of the landscape were caused by the Missoula Floods (aka the Spokane or Bretz floods) at the end of the last ice age (12 to 19 thousand years ago) which swept away the already established soil and in their place deposited glacial erratics from other far-away places, some even coming all the way from Canada. The flood reached eastern Oregon and the Willamette via the Columbia River Gorge and created the green and rocky plateau that is now Camassia.

While the reserve is named after a widespread plant in the park, which is a common camas (Camassia quamash) that blooms in April and early May, the park has over 300 different species overall. However, one species in particular has kicked in the door and far overstayed its welcome in the park, becoming a highly invasive weed in the area. This plant is known as Lapsana communis or nipplewort. It is an annual dicot that is native to Europe and Asia, but is considered invasive in Canada and the United States. In the U.S., the weed is most common west of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. It is in the Asteraceae family (aka the aster, daisy, or sunflower family), and like dandelions or common groundsel, nipplewort is part of the weedy side of the family.

nicole illustration_cropped

The name itself has an interesting history that originated around 350 years ago when an Englishman by the name of John Parkinson named the plant after he heard that it was useful for topical treatment of ulcers for women on certain areas of their bodies. It was also an herbal treatment for nursing mothers, and was used to aid cows and goats that were having trouble being milked. Another source of the name is said to have come from the shape of the basal lobes and their resembling features. Because nipplewort is edible, its leaves can be cooked like spinach or served raw in only the most hipster of salads.

In terms of its anatomy, nipplewort is about one to three and a half inches in height, has alternate, ovular, lobed, rich green leaves, and composite yellow flowers with about 13 petals similar in resemblance to a dandelion. They flower from June to September and are pollinated by various insects. Seed set occurs in July to October. The plant then spreads through reseeding, and one plant can produce 400 to 1,000 seeds that put out shoots in fall and spring.

Consult a fellow botanist to find out more about Lapsana communis, especially if you are curious to know if it has invaded your territory. If it has, consider entertaining dinner guests with this unusual plant.

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Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

franz

Illustration by Franz Anthony (www.franzanth.com)

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

Additional Resources:

In Defense of Weeds – A Book Review

Weeds have been with us since the beginning of human civilization. We created them, really. We settled down, started growing food, urbanized, and in doing so we invited opportunistic plant species to join us – we created spaces for them to flourish and provided room for them to spread out and settle in. During our history together, our attitudes about weeds have swung dramatically from simply living with and accepting them, recognizing their usefulness, incorporating them into our religious myths and cultural traditions, to developing feelings of disgust and disdain and ultimately declaring outright war against them. In a sense, weeds are simultaneously as wild and as domestic as a thing can be. They remind us of ourselves perhaps, and so our feelings are mixed.

Considering our combined history and the fact that weeds have stuck with us all along, perhaps it’s time we give them a little respect. This seems to be the objective of Richard Mabey’s book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. In Mabey’s own words, “this book is a case for the defense, an argued suggestion that we look more dispassionately at these outlaw plants, at what they are, how they grow, and the reasons we regard them as trouble.” Additionally, we should recognize that we wrote the definition for weeds: “plants become weeds because people label them as such.” We introduce them, create conditions in which they can thrive, and then turn around and despise them for doing what they do best. “In a radical shift of perspective we now blame the weeds, rather than ourselves;” however, as Mabey ultimately concludes, “we get the weeds we deserve.”

weeds book

But before he arrives at that conclusion – and certainly Mabey has more to say than that pithy remark – Mabey takes readers on a remarkable journey. Starting with the origins of agriculture – and the origins of weeds – he recounts the story of how weeds followed civilization as it spread across the globe. He describes our diverse reactions to weeds, how we have dealt with them, and how they have infiltrated our myths, art, cultures, food, medicine, rituals, philosophies, and stories. Along the way, certain weeds are profiled using Mabey’s unique prose. Each weed has a story to tell – some more sordid than others.

Mabey is a British author, and so the book has a strong Anglocentric slant. But this seems fitting considering that the explorations and migrations of early Europeans are probably responsible for moving more plant species around than any other group in history – at least up until the modern era. Mabey describes the myriad ways these plants were introduced: “Some simply rode piggy-back on crop and garden plants…others were welcomed as food plants or glamorous ornaments, but escaped or were thrown out and became weeds as a consequence of unforeseen bad behavior.” The seeds of many species hitched rides with numerous agricultural and industrial products, while others attached themselves to clothing, shoes, and animal fur. Everywhere humans traveled, weeds followed.

Weeds are one of the great legacies Europeans brought with them as they settled the American continent. A veritable wave of new plant species entered the Americas as the Europeans trickled in, some were purposeful introductions and some accidental. Ever the opportunists, Europe’s weeds traversed across the continent as settlers tilled and altered the land. Mabey details the introduction of “invasive European weeds” to the western United States, claiming that “by the twentieth century two-thirds of the vegetation of the western grasslands was composed of introduced species, mostly European.

One of these European species in particular has been wholeheartedly embraced by American culture; it was even given an American name. Kentucky bluegrass, Poa pratensis, “is a common, widespread but unexceptional species of grassy places in Europe…but in uncontested new grazing lands of North America it could color whole sweeps of grassland.” It has since become a preferred turfgrass species, and it’s innate ability to thrive here makes it partly responsible for Americans’ obsession with the perfect lawn. Oddly, other European invaders infiltrating a pristine, green lawn are unwelcome and derided as “weeds.” In actuality, considering its relentless, expansive, and spreading nature and its reliance on humans to perpetuate its behavior, turfgrass is much more fit for the label “weed” than any other species that invades it. As Mabey asserts, “a lawn dictates its own standards…the demands made by its singular, unblemished identity, its mute insistence that if you do not help it to continue along the velvet path you have established for it, you are guilty of a kind of betrayal.”

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also known as smooth meadow-grass - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), also known as smooth meadow-grass – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Reading along it becomes clear that Mabey is infatuated with weeds. You can see it in sentences like, “the outlandish enterprise of weeds – such sharp and fast indices of change – can truly lift your heart.” This doesn’t mean that in his own garden he doesn’t “hoick them up when they get in [his] way.” It just means that his “capricious assault” is “tinged with respect and often deflected by a romantic mood.” Does Mabey wish his readers to swoon the way he does over these enterprising and opportunistic aliens? Perhaps. More than that he seems to want to instill an awe and admiration for what they can do. In many cases they serve important ecological functions, including being a sort of “first responder” after a disturbance due to their fast acting and ephemeral nature. In this way, weeds “give something back” by “holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.” They also “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it,” and so despite their dependence on human activities, they could be considered “the very essence of wildness.”

For all the love Mabey has for weeds, he remains convinced that some absolutely need to be kept in check. He calls out Japanese knotweed specifically – an “invader with which a truly serious reckoning has to be made.” In speaking of naturalized plant species – introduced species that propagate themselves and “spread without deliberate human assistance” – he makes the comparison to humans becoming naturalized citizens in countries where they were not born. In this sense he argues for more acceptance of such species, while simultaneously warning that “there are invasive species that ought never to get their naturalization papers.”

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

This is an engrossing read, and regardless of how you feel about weeds going in, Mabey will – if nothing else – instill in you a sort of reverence for them. You may still want to reach for the hoe or the herbicide at the sight of them – and you may be justified in doing that – but perhaps you’ll do so with a little more understanding. After all, humans and weeds are kindred species.

As a type they are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us.

Listen to Mabey talk about his book and his interest in weeds on these past episodes of Science Friday and All Things Considered.