Randomly Selected Botanical Terms: Prickles

Let’s start by getting something out of the way: roses have prickles, not thorns. However, just like peanuts aren’t actually nuts and tomatoes are actually fruits, our colloquial terms for things don’t always match up with botanical terminology. This doesn’t mean that we should be pedants about things and go spoiling a friendly dinner party with our “well, actually…” corrections. If you hear someone saying (or singing) something about every rose having its thorn, it’s okay to just let it go.

So why don’t roses have thorns? And what even is a prickle anyway?

Plants have a way of modifying various body parts to form a variety of features that look like something totally new and different. When the development of these features are observed at a cellular level, we find that what once may have grown into something familiar, like a stem, is now something less familiar, like a thorn. A thorn, then, is a modified stem. Stem tissue was used by the plant to form a hardened spike. Thorns help protect a plant from being eaten, so going through the trouble of producing this feature is a benefit to the plant.

thorns of hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)

Spines and prickles are similar features to thorns and serve a similar purpose, but they have different origins. Spines are modified leaf or stipule tissue (the spines on a cactus are actually modified leaves). Prickles are outgrowths of the epidermis or bark. In plants, epidermis is a single, outer layer of cells that covers all of the organs (i.e. leaves, roots, flowers, stems). Outgrowths on this layer are common and often appear as little hairs. The technical term for these hairs or hair-like structures is trichomes.

the stems of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are covered in dense trichomes

Prickles are much like trichomes, but there are usually less of them and they are hardened and pointy. They can be sharp like a thorn or spine and so are often confused for them. (Spines are also confused for thorns, as is the case with Euphorbia milii, whose common name is crown of thorns but whose “thorns” are actually spines.) As stated above, their cellular origin is different, and unlike thorns and spines, prickles don’t have vascular tissue, which is the internal tissue that transports water and nutrients throughout all parts of the plant. In general, prickles can be easily broken off, as they are often weakly attached to the epidermis.

Prickles are most commonly observed on roses and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Prickles on roses are commonly called thorns, and that’s okay. Thorn is perhaps a more poetic word and easier to relate to. But really, I’m torn and forlorn that they aren’t thorns. It puts me in a pickle trying to rhyme words with prickle.

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Eating Weeds: Japanese Knotweed

When I first learned that Japanese knotweed was edible, I had my doubts. Sure, lots of plants may be edible, but are they really something you’d want to eat? I know Japanese knotweed as one of the most notorious weeds on the planet. Its destructive, relentless, and prolific nature has landed it on the world’s 100 worst invasive species list, right up there with black rats, Dutch elm disease, and killer algae. Having encountered a fair number of Japanese knotweed stands, the first thing to come to mind has never been, “that looks delicious.” Mature stalks stand as tall as 3 meters with broad, leathery leaves and hollow, bamboo-like stems. Their late summer flowers – a mess of tiny white florets on sprawling flower stalks – are a pollinator’s delight and favored by beekeepers for their abundant nectar. I don’t doubt that the honey produced from such an encounter is tasty, but the plant itself? I needed convincing.

Finally, I looked into it. I came across recipes of Japanese knotweed pickles and learned that it was the young, early emerging shoots that were sought after. That changed my perspective. Certainly you wouldn’t want to gnaw on a woody, 4 foot tall Japanese knotweed stalk, but the tender stems as they’re just beginning to re-emerge from the ground in the spring? Now those might be worth trying.

emerging stems of Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica)

Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) was introduced to Europe from Japan in the 1800’s, arriving at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by 1850. At that point, it was a prized ornamental. Its thick stems spotted with reds and purples, its broad, shiny leaves, and its showy flower heads all gave it garden appeal. It was also found to be useful for stabilizing hillsides and reducing erosion, honey production, and as a rhubarb substitute (it’s in the same plant family as rhubarb after all). Not long after that, it made its way to North America. Certainly people must have been aware of its propagative prowess as they moved the plant around. It readily roots from root and stem fragments, plus it produces extensive rhizomes, working their way as deep as 3 meters into the soil and as far as 7 meters away from the parent plant. Perhaps that should have been cause for alarm, but how could anyone have predicted just how aggressive and widespread it would soon become?

Thanks to the plant’s rhizomes, Japanese knotweed grows in thick, many-stemmed stands, pushing out, shading out, and leaving very little room for other plants. The rhizomes are also tough and can push up through gravel, cement, and asphalt. They are notorious for damaging foundations, pipes, and even pushing their way through floorboards. If that’s not enough, Japanese knotweed is pretty much impossible to kill. Herbicides may set it back, but they generally don’t take it out. Cutting it down repeatedly can slow it down, but it may also encourage it to grow more thickly and spread out more widely. Smothering it can work, but you have to be prepared to keep it smothered for quite a while. The deep rhizomes are slow to die, and they may eventually find their way outside of the smothered area, popping up to destroy your efforts to contain it. You can try to dig it out, but the amount of dirt you’d have to dig to get every last root and rhizome really isn’t feasible in most circumstances.

But hey, you can eat it, and perhaps you should. A quick internet search reveals a number of ways the plant can be consumed – purees, chutneys, compotes, sorbets. I chose to go with pickled Japanese knotweed. It seemed simple and approachable enough and a good way to determine if I was going to like it or not. Room temperature brine fermentation is pretty easy. You basically put whatever you’re wanting to pickle in a jar, add whatever spices and things you’d like, fill the jar with salty water, then seal it shut and let it sit there for a few days. Before you know it, you’ve got pickles.

There are several recipes for pickled Japanese knotweed to choose from. I went with this one. The seasonings I used were a bit different, and the stalks I had weren’t as “chubby” as recommended, but otherwise my approach was the same. After a few days, I gave them a try. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought they tasted a little like nopales. Sierra reluctantly tried them and was also surprised by how good they were. They reminded her of pickled asparagus. Other sources describe them as lemony, crunchy, tart and suggest serving them with fish, ramen, or even adding them to a cocktail made with purslane. Many of the weeds I’ve tried have been a fun experience, but not necessarily something I need to repeat. Japanese knotweed pickles, on the other hand, could become a spring tradition for me, and since we’re pretty much stuck with this plant, I’m sure to have a steady supply.

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