In Praise of Vagabond Plants – A Book Review

A weed is a highly successful plant that shares a close relationship with humans. In many instances, weeds are seen as nuisance plants, interfering with the goals and intentions we have for a piece of land. In natural areas, they are blamed for, among other things, threatening the existence of the native flora, despite the fact that human activity and disturbance brought them there in the first place and continued human disturbance helps keep them there. In some instances, such as a vacant lot in an urban area, they pose no threat and their existence causes little if any harm, yet they are disparaged for being unsightly, hazardous, and out of place. Nevermind the fact that they are offering a number of ecosystem services free of charge.

For all these reasons and more, weeds get called some pretty nasty things and are the recipient of an unduly amount of ire. The extent that some of us will go to vilify a plant is a bit disturbing to me, so it’s always refreshing to come across a more reasonable approach to weeds. That tempered take is what I found in Gareth Richards’ book, Weeds: The Beauty and Uses of 50 Vagabond Plants, a production of the Royal Horticultural Society and whose vast archives were used to beautifully illustrate the book.

There seems to be a growing trend in the U.K. and other parts of Europe to be more accepting of weeds, to see them as part of our urban, suburban, and exurban flora, and to focus on the value they may bring rather than constantly reviling them as interlopers and thus trying to blast them out of existence with chemical warfare. (See also Wild About Weeds by Jack Wallington). I hope this is true, and I hope the trend continues and catches on in other parts of the world. As Richards writes, “Often the only crime a plant has committed is growing too well.” Thankfully, books like this help bring awareness to these highly fecund and robust plants and their many redeeming qualities.

Richards’ book starts out with a brief introduction and then proceeds with short profiles of 50+ different plant species that are commonly considered weeds. The focus of the book is on weeds found in the U.K.; however, weeds being what they are, at least a few (if not most) of the plants covered are bound to be growing near you regardless of where you live in the world. While there is some discussion of the invasive nature of a few of the plants profiled and the illegality of growing or transporting them – see Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam, and pontic rhododendron for example – the focus is not on management nor control. Instead, the discussion revolves around interesting aspects of the plants that makes them worth getting to know rather than something to simply eliminate.

As is often the case when discussing specific plants, medicinal uses and edibility feature heavily in Richards’ plant profiles. It’s interesting to learn about the many ways that humans have thought about and used plants historically, and some of the ways they were historically used are certainly still relevant today; however, many medicinal claims don’t stand the test of time nor do they have empirical evidence to back them up. For this reason, I generally take medicinal uses of plants with a grain of a salt and a healthy dose of skepticism. Edibility, on the other hand, has always been interesting to me, and just when I thought I had heard all the ways that dandelions can be eaten, Richards introduces me to another: “You can even harvest the flower buds for pickling; they make a useful homegrown caper substitute.”

What follows are a few excerpts from the book with accompanying photos of the plants in question.

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was originally introduced to gardens for its medicinal and edible qualities, but its aggressive behavior can be frustrating. Richards notes, “A useful plant for brave gardeners!”
The rhizomatous nature of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) makes it an excellent addition or alternative to turf grass, and thanks to its drought-tolerance, Richards asserts, “certainly lawns containing yarrow stay greener for longer in dry spells.
Speaking of lawns, “Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) in your lawn is generally a sign that it’s too wet for short grass to thrive.” Richards recommends letting it become a meadow instead. “Sometimes the most rewarding way of gardening is to let nature do it for you.”
Regarding teasel (Dipsacus spp.), Richards writes: “It’s not only bees that adore them; when the seeds ripen they’re loved by birds, especially goldfinches. Try planting some in your garden as a homegrown alternative food source to replace shop-bought nyjer seed.” (photo credit: Sierra Laverty)
“Cats and dogs seek out couch grass (Elymus repens) when they want to chew on something – either for its minerals or to help them vomit to clear their stomachs, often of furballs.” Kōura can frequently be found chewing on it.
“Like many weeds, herb bennet (Geum urbanum) has some clever adaptations. Its nondescript leaves blend seamlessly with other plants, never drawing attention to themselves. And those [clove-scented] roots are really tough, making plants physically difficult to pull up by hand. … The seeds have small hooks and readily attach themselves to fur and clothing to hitch a free ride to pastures new.”

Regardless of how you feel about weeds, if you’re interested in plants at all, this book is worth getting your hands on and these plants are worth getting to know. They may not be the plants you prefer to see growing on your property, but they have interesting stories to tell and, in many cases, may not be as big of a problem as you originally thought. In discussing Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and its weedy relatives, Richards hits on a point that for me is one of the main takeaways of this book: “In an age where gardens are becoming wilder and the countryside ever more fragmented, and nature is on the march due to climate change, perhaps we should just learn to treasure the wild plants that thrive in the the new conditions we have made – wherever they originally came from.”

More Weeds Themed Book and Zine Reviews:

Burr Tongue, or The Weed That Choked the Dog

It is said that the inspiration for Velcro came when Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was removing the burrs of burdock from his dog’s coat, an experience we had with Kōura just days after adopting her. I knew that common burdock was found on our property, and I had made a point to remove all the plants that I could easily get to. However, during Kōura’s thorough exploration of our yard, she managed to find the one plant I had yet to pull due to its awkward location behind the chicken coop.

I knew when I saw the clump of burrs attached to her hind end that we were going to spend the evening combing them out of her fur. However, not long after that we discovered that Kōura had already started the process and in doing so had either swallowed or inhaled some. What tipped us off was her violent hacking and gagging as she moved frantically around the living room. She was clearly distraught, and so were we. Recognizing that she had probably swallowed a burr, we made a quick decision to take her to an emergency vet. This was our unfortunately timed (this happened on Christmas Eve) introduction to burr tongue and all the frightening things that can happen when a dog swallows burdock burrs.

The roots, shoots, and leaves of both greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and common burdock (Arctium minus) are edible, which I have already discussed in an Eating Weeds post. The burrs, on the other hand, are clearly not. While sticking to the fur of animals and the clothing of people is an excellent way for a plant to get their seeds dispersed, the sharp, hooked barbs that facilitate this are not something you want down your throat. When this occurs, the natural response is to try to hack them up, which Kōura was doing. Salivating heavily and vomiting can also help. In many cases, this will be enough to eliminate the barbs. However, if they manage to work their way into the soft tissues of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or throat and remain there, serious infection can occur.

burr of common burdock (Arctium minus)

A paper published in The Canadian Veterinary Journal in 1973 describes the treatment for what is commonly known as burr tongue and technically referred to as granular stomatitis. The paper gives an account of what can happen when “long-haired breeds of dogs … run free in areas where [burdock] grows” and the hooked scales of the burrs consequently “penetrate the mucous membrane of the mouth and tongue.” Dogs with burrs imbedded in their mouths may start eating less or more slowly, drinking more water, and drooling excessively. As infection progresses, their breath can start to stink. A look inside the mouth and at the tongue will reveal lesions where the burrs have embedded themselves. Treatment involves putting the dog under anesthesia, scraping away the infected tissue, and administering antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the lesions, scar tissue can form where the barbs were attached.

To prevent infection from happening in the first place, a veterinarian can put the dog under anesthesia and use a camera inside the dog’s mouth and throat to search for pieces of the burr that may have gotten lodged. There is no guarantee that they will find them all or be able to remove them, and so the dog should be monitored over the next several days for signs and symptoms. At our veterinary visit, the vet also warned us that if any burrs were inhaled into the lungs, they could cause a lung infection, which is another thing to monitor for since it would be practically impossible for an x-ray or a camera to initially find them.

Luckily, now more than three weeks later, Kōura appears to be doing fine, and the offending burdock has been taken care of. One thing is for sure, as someone who is generally forgiving of weeds, burdock is one weed that will not be permitted to grow at Awkward Botany Headquarters.


For more adventures involving Kōura, be sure to follow her on Instagram @plantdoctordog.

All the Plant Shows, part three

In part one and part two of this series, I introduced you to at least 23 plant-themed and plant-related podcasts. But wait, there’s more. As podcasts continue to be such a popular medium for entertainment and education, plant podcasts proliferate. You won’t see me complaining. I’m always happy to check out more botanical content. What follows are mini-reviews of a few more of the plant shows I’ve been listening to lately.

Plants Grow Here – Based in Australia, this is a horticulture and gardening podcast hosted by Daniel Fuller (and the occasional guest host). What separates it from other horticulture-related podcasts is the heavy focus on ecology and conservation. As Daniel says in the introductory episode, “there’s no point in talking about plants at any length without acknowledging that they exist within a wider web.” Daniel interviews plant experts, professionals, and enthusiasts from various parts of the globe, and while much of the focus is on horticulture topics, specifically related to gardening in Australia, there are several episodes that focus solely on the plants themselves and their place in the natural world.

Completely Arbortrary – Relatively new to the scene but an instant classic. Completely Arbortrary is hosted by Casey Clapp, a tree expert, and Alex Crowson, a tree agnostic. In each episode, Casey introduces Alex to a new tree species. After learning all about the tree, they each give it a rating (from zero to ten Golden Cones of Honor!). Sometimes the ratings will surprise you (Alex gave Bradford pear 9.1 Golden Cones of Honor). As the show has gone on, additional segments have been introduced, like Trick or Tree and listener questions. This is easily one of the best plant podcasts around, not just because you’ll learn something about trees (and who doesn’t love trees?), but because you will have a delightful time doing so with a couple of the friendliest and goofiest podcast hosts around.

Naturistic – In the same vein as Completely Arbortrary, Naturistic features host, Nash Turley, telling his co-host friend, Hamilton Boyce, about a natural history topic. At the time of this posting, there are only a handful of episodes available, and not all are plant-focused (most are about animals), but I assume more plant ones are in the works. Either way, each episode is well worth a listen. The topics are well-researched and presented in an amiable and approachable manner. There are also some nicely done videos that accompany some of the episodes.

Flora and Friends – A plant podcast based in Sweden and hosted by Judith, who is also a member of The Plant Book Club. Generally, Judith spends a few episodes with several guests diving deep into a single plant, group of plants, or plant-related topic. So far, there are series of episodes about nasturtiums, Pelargonium, Fritillaria, and forests. Sometimes the episodes are in Swedish, and when that’s the case, Judith refers listeners to a summary in English on the podcast’s website. Each episode is a casual and pleasant chat – or in other words a “botanical tea break” – about the topic at hand, which explains why Judith refers to the podcast as “your botanical cup of tea.”

Field, Lab, Earth – “A podcast all about past and present advances in the fields of agronomy, crop, soil, and environmental sciences.” Produced by a group of three professional societies – American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America – and hosted by Abby Morrison. In each episode, Abby talks with a guest or guests about a research topic, often having to do with agriculture, but sometimes having to do with other aspects of plant and soil science. Listeners get behind the scenes information about how the research was conducted, as well as in depth discussions on the findings. You don’t necessarily need a background in plant and soil science to listen, as many of the basic concepts are well-explained along the way. Also, if you’re a Certified Crop Adviser or Certified Professional Soil Scientist, you can earn Continuing Education Credits by listening to each episode and taking a quiz. Major Bonus!

Backyard Ecology – An urban ecology podcast hosted by Shannon Trimboli. Nature isn’t just some far off place, it’s right outside our doors as well. With a little effort, we can make our yards and other urban spaces more biodiverse and create quality habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Plants are the foundation of our urban habitats, as is the case practically anywhere else, so even when episodes of this podcast are focused on animals, you can be sure that plants are at the heart of the conversation. Join Shannon as she, through conversations with other experts and nature enthusiasts, “ignites our curiosity and natural wonder, explores our yards and communities, and improves our local pollinator and wildlife habitat”

Talking Biotech – This is a long-running podcast hosted by Dr. Kevin Folta that aims to help people better understand the science behind genetic engineering. Folta’s university research supports plant breeding efforts, and many of the episodes of his podcast focus on plant breeding using both traditional methods and genetic engineering. A variety of other aspects and uses of biotechnology are also explored on the podcast. Folta has a passion for science communication and is adamant about debunking misinformation and sharing with the world the promise that new technologies offer us in our efforts to feed the world, improve human health, and address environmental threats. Even if you’re not generally interested in plant breeding, the discussions about the plants and the research is always very interesting and thought-provoking.

War Against Weeds – There is so much more to plants than meets the eye, and what group of plants demonstrates this better than weeds? They are our constant companions, and they are continually outwitting us. Their “craftiness” is one of the reasons I find them so intriguing. Controlling weeds is a constant battle, and few know that battle better than those who work in agriculture. After all, their livelihoods depend on it. War Against Weeds is hosted by three weed scientists whose job it is to help farmers successfully manage weeds. Each episode is a peek into what it takes to do the job. The war may never be won, and the strategies must be diverse – hence the podcast’s tagline, “silver bullets are for werewolves” – and so the conversation will continue. Luckily, we get to listen in.

Arthro-Pod – Just as the name implies, this is an entomology podcast. Insects and plants share an intimate relationship, so I consider this enough of a plant-related podcast to be included here. Plus I really like it. It came to me highly recommended by Idaho Plant Doctor, who is also really into plants and bugs. Hosted by three professional entomologists that all work in extension, Arthro-Pod is a bit like War Against Weeds, but is geared more towards the layperson than the professional. The hosts are humorous and clearly love what they do, which is why, apart from the fascinating discussions about insects, this is such a delight to listen to.


Chances are there will be a part four to this series. If you’re aware of a plant podcast that I haven’t covered yet, please let me know in the comment section below or by sending me a message via the Contact page.

Weeds of Boise: iNaturalist Observations

So far, the lists of weeds at each of the Weeds of Boise sites look pretty similar, with several weed species showing up at nearly every site and other species only occasionally making an appearance. This isn’t a surprise really. The flora of any region typically has several species that are dominant, along with species that occur less frequently. Wild urban flora – or in other words, the naturalized weeds in urban areas – may follow a similar pattern. My unscientific and infrequent surveys, all of which have been pretty close to where I live, aren’t yet representative of the Boise area as a whole. However, something like iNaturalist might help with that. For this reason, I took a look at iNaturalist observations to get a better idea as to which species dominate the wild urban flora of Boise, Idaho.

iNaturalist is a website and app that allows users to identify, map, and share observations of living things with the rest of the world. It has been in use for over a decade and is easily one of the most popular community science, biodiversity mapping, and identification apps around. Even though it is not the primary mission of iNaturalist, the information gathered from user observations is frequently used in scientific research and conservation efforts. With over 80 million observations worldwide, iNaturalist offers a pretty decent picture of the plants, animals, fungi, and other living things found in just about any given location. You don’t even need to a registered user to browse the observations and find out what has been spotted near you or across the globe.

In order to come up with a list of weeds that have been observed in Boise by iNaturalist users, I entered “Boise City Metropolitan Area, ID, USA” into the Location field. It is possible to narrow your search to individual neighborhoods or even broaden your search to include a larger area. Clicking on the map allows you to see the area represented in your search. For my purposes, I figured that the number of observations would change if the area covered was either smaller or larger, but the list of weed species would largely remain the same. After you select your search area, you can filter out the results. Clicking on the plant icon limits the search to plants. At first I selected only introduced plants, but that seemed to eliminate a few of the plants that I would consider weeds, so instead I scanned through the entire list of plants and made a list of each of the weed species and how many times each had been observed.

There are of course limitations to using iNaturalist to create species lists, the main one being that you are relying on decisions made by iNaturalist users when it comes to what gets reported. In my case, in which I’m looking for a list of weed species found in Boise, I know there are plenty of weeds that iNaturalist users either aren’t noticing or aren’t bothering to report. The reported observations are also not likely to match the frequency at which they occur in the environment. Still, it’s interesting to see what gets reported and how often. It’s also interesting to see reports of things that I haven’t seen before. By clicking on individual observations, you can see where those observations were made, which means I know where I can go to find species I haven’t yet encountered.

What follows is a list of the top 25 weeds in the Boise area based on the number of iNaturalist observations, along with photos of some of the most reported weeds. A few of the species on the list, like cornflower, straddle the line between weed and desirable plant. I included them anyway because they are known to be naturalized outside of garden borders, even though some of the reported observations may have been intentionally planted within garden borders.

bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
pink-flowered field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)
great mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Top 25 Weeds in the Boise City Metropolitan Area According to iNaturalist Observations (as of September 21, 2021)

  1. great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – 110 
  2. common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – 98
  3. redstem stork’s-bill (Erodium cicutarium) – 83
  4. chicory (Cichorium intybus) – 62
  5. heart-podded hoary cress (Lepidium draba) – 61
  6. cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – 58
  7. rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea) – 56
  8. purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – 49
  9. bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) – 47
  10. alfalfa (Medicago sativa) – 46
  11. common soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) – 43
  12. dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta) – 42
  13. donkey tail (Euphorbia myrsinites) – 40 
  14. poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) – 39
  15. field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) – 39 
  16. bulbous meadow-grass (Poa bulbosa) – 39
  17. yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius) – 38
  18. crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) – 37 
  19. cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) – 36
  20. moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) – 36 
  21. hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) – 31
  22. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) – 30
  23. catnip (Nepeta cataria) – 29
  24. white clover (Trifolium repens) – 29
  25. yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus) – 28
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
catnip (Nepeta cataria)
common soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Weeds of Boise: Railroad Tracks Between Kootenai Street and Overland Road

Walking along railroad tracks is a pretty cool feeling. It’s also a good place to look for weeds. Active railroad tracks are managed for optimum visibility and fire prevention, which means that trees and shrubs near the tracks are removed creating plenty of open space on either side. Open areas in full sun are ideal places for a wide variety of weed species to grow. Trains passing through can also be sources or dispersal agents of seeds, so there’s a chance that you may see things growing alongside railroad tracks that you don’t often see elsewhere. All this means that railroad tracks in urban areas are great locations to familiarize yourself with your city’s wild urban flora.

I visited a small section of railroad tracks between Kootenai Street and Overland Road in Boise. At one point, this was a pretty active railroad. Passenger trains once moved along these tracks, and the Boise Depot, which is less than a mile from this location, was one of several stops between Portland, OR and Salt Lake City, UT. Unfortunately, those services ended in 1997 and have yet to resume, despite continued support for bringing passenger rail back to the region. Still, freight trains pass by with some frequency.

Managing weeds along railroad tracks in urban areas can be tricky. There is little else in the way of vegetation to compete with the weeds. The tracks are also adjacent to parks, homes, schools, gardens, and other locations that make herbicide applications complicated. The species of weeds can also vary widely from one mile to the next, so management decisions must also vary. It’s especially important that the ballast directly beneath and on either side of the tracks is kept weed free in order to prevent fires and improve visibility. All of this and more makes weed control along railroad tracks one of the most challenging jobs around. Luckily, for someone that likes to look at weeds, it means there will always be interesting things to see near the tracks, including for example this colony of harvester ants that I came across while identifying weeds. I was happy to see that they were collecting the samaras of Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila), one of several weedy trees in the Treasure Valley.

What follows are a few images of some of the weeds I encountered along the railroad tracks between Kootenai Street and Overland Road, as well as a list of the weeds I was able to identify. The list will grow as I identify the mystery weeds and encounter others that I missed, as is the case with all posts in the Weeds of Boise series.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)
cleavers (Galium aparine)
whitetop (Lepidium sp.)
Himalayan blackberry (Rubus bifrons)
bush honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)
Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila)
English ivy (Hedera helix)
kochia seedlings (Bassia scoparia)
  • Arctium minus (common burdock)
  • Bassia scoparia (kochia)
  • Bromus diandrus (ripgut brome)
  • Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass)
  • Chorispora tenella (blue mustard)
  • Conium maculatum (poison hemlock)
  • Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed)
  • Cirsium arvense (creeping thistle)
  • Dactylis glomerata (orchardgrass)
  • Descurainia sophia (flixweed)
  • Elaeagnus angustifolia (Russian olive)
  • Epilobium ciliatum (northern willowherb)
  • Equisetum sp. (horsetail)
  • Erodium cicutarium (redstem filaree)
  • Galium aparine (cleavers)
  • Hedera helix (English ivy)
  • Hordeum murinum (wild barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Lepidium sp. (whitetop)
  • Lonicera sp. (bush honeysuckle)
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper)
  • Poa bulbosa (bulbous bluegrass)
  • Poa pratensis (Kentucky bluegrass)
  • Rubus bifrons (Himalayan blackberry)
  • Rumex crispus (curly dock)
  • Secale cereale (feral rye)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Ulmus pumila (Siberian elm)

Do you live near railroad tracks? What weeds are growing there, and do you feel as cool as I do when you walk the tracks?

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.

More Eating Weeds Posts on Awkward Botany:

Weeds of Boise: Awkward Botany Headquarters

Weeds of Boise: Awkward Botany Headquarters

Last December, Sierra and I left apartment living behind and embarked on a new journey as homeowners, which you can read about in this January’s Year in Review post. This means that Awkward Botany Headquarters now has a yard, and having a yard means we also have weeds.

For many people living in urban areas, the weeds of most concern to them are the ones found in their yards, especially for those that garden or like to keep a tidy yard. Removing weeds is a constant chore. They are always popping up and getting in the way of our plans. In fact, that’s the very definition of a weed – an uninvited plant growing in a location where it isn’t wanted. Despite our best efforts, our yards are always going to have some amount of weeds in them, so what better place to familiarize yourself with your wild urban flora than in your own yard? Or, in this case, our yard.

Our house is located in an area of Boise called the Bench. The Boise Bench, which is actually a series of benches or terraces, is located south of the Boise River and overlooks downtown Boise. The formation of the benches began 2 million years ago as the Boise River cut through the valley. Over time, sediments were deposited at the south bank of the river as it cut further and further northward, leaving behind the series of large terraces. Early in Boise’s history, the Bench was largely agricultural land thanks to the construction of canals. As the city grew, housing and commercial developments expanded across the Bench and have now displaced most of the farmland. Urbanization of the Boise Bench continues today at a steady clip.

While I haven’t had a chance to explore every square inch of the yard, and the growing season is just getting started, what follows are a few photos and a short list of some of the weeds I’ve encountered so far.

  • Arctium minus (burdock)
  • Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass)
  • Capsella bursa-pastoris (shepherd’s purse)
  • Cirsium arvense (creeping thistle)
  • Chondrilla juncea (rush skeletonweed)
  • Digitaria sanguinalis (crabgrass)
  • Draba verna (spring draba)
  • Echinochloa crus-galli (barnyard grass)
  • Elymus repens (quackgras)
  • Epilobium sp. (willowherb)
  • Erodium cicutarium (redstem filaree)
  • Euphorbia maculata (spotted spurge)
  • Hordeum murinum (wild barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Lepidium sp. (white top)
  • Malva neglecta (common mallow)
  • Poa bulbosa (bulbous bluegrass)
  • Polygonum sp. (knotweed)
  • Portulaca oleracea (purslane)
  • Sonchus sp. (sowthistle)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Ulmus pumila (Siberian elm)
  • Veronica sp. (speedwell)

Like all posts in the Weeds of Boise series, this will be updated as I identify and photograph more of the weeds found in this location. Do you have a yard in an urban area? What weeds are you seeing in your yard this year? Let us know in the comment section below.

The Weeds in Your Bird Seed

With February comes the return of the Great Backyard Bird Count, a weekend-long, worldwide, bird counting event that Sierra and I have enjoyed participating in for the past few years. While you can choose to count birds anywhere birds are found, part of the appeal of the event is that it can be done from the comfort of one’s own home simply by watching for birds to appear right outside the window. If there are bird feeders in your yard, your chances of seeing birds are obviously improved. Watch for at least fifteen minutes, record the number and species of birds you see, then report your sightings online. It’s for science!

Feeding and watching birds are popular activities. In the United States alone, as many as 57 million households put out food for birds, spending more than $4 billion annually to do so. While there are a variety of things one can purchase to feed birds – suet, berries, mealworms, etc. – the bulk of that money is likely spent on bags of bird seed (also referred to as bird feed). Bird seed is a relatively cheap and easy way to feed a wide variety of birds. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to introduce new weeds to your yard.

Bird seed contaminated with noxious weed seeds is not a new problem. It has been a concern for decades, and some countries have taken regulatory steps to address the issue. In the United States, however, there are no governmental regulations that address weed seed contamination in bird seed.  With this thought in mind, researchers at the University of Missouri screened a large sampling of bird seed mixes to determine the number and species of weed seeds they harbored, as well as their viability and herbicide resistance. Their results were published last year in Invasive Plant Science and Management.

The researchers examined 98 different bird seed mixes purchased from retail locations in states across the eastern half of the U.S. The seeds of 29 weed species were recovered from the bags, including at least eight species of grasses and several annual and perennial broadleaf weeds. 96% of the mixes contained one or more species of Amaranthus, including Palmer’s amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), which was found in 27 mixes and which the researchers refer to as “the most troublesome weed species in agroecosystems today.” About 19% of amaranth seeds recovered germinated readily, and five of the seed mixes contained A. tuberculatus and A. palmeri seeds that, once grown out, were found to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in a commonly used herbicide.

Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is one of several weedy amaranth species commonly found in bird seed mixes (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

The seeds of grass weeds were found in 76% of the bird seed mixes and included three species of foxtail (Setaria spp.), as well as other common grasses like large crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) and barnyardgrass (Echinochloa crus-galli). Bird seed ingredients that seemed to favor grass seed contamination included wheat, grain sorghum, and proso millet, three crops that are also in the grass family. No surprise, as grass weeds are difficult to control in crop fields when the crop being grown is also a grass.

After amaranths and grasses, ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) was the third most common weed found in the mixes. This was a troubling discovery since populations of this species have shown resistance to a number of different herbicides. Moving ragweed to new locations via bird seed could mean that the genes that give ragweed its herbicide resistance can also be moved to new locations. Kochia (Bassia scoparia), another weed on the Weed Science Society of America’s list of top ten most troublesome weeds, was also found in certain bird seed mixes, particularly when safflower was an ingredient in the feed.

A similar study carried out several years earlier at Oregon State University found the seeds of more than fifty different weed species in ten brands of bird feed commonly sold at retail stores. Ten of the weeds recovered from the mixes are on Oregon’s noxious weed list. Both studies demonstrate how bird seed can be a vector for spreading weed seeds – and even new weed species and herbicide-resistant genes – to new locations. Weeds found sprouting below bird feeders can then potentially be moved beyond the feeders by wind and other dispersal agents. Weed seeds might also be moved to new locations inside the stomachs of birds.

Addressing this issue can be tackled from several different angles. Growers and processors can improve their management of weed species in the fields where bird seed is grown and do a better job at removing weed seeds from the mixes after they are harvested. Government regulations can be put in place that restrict the type and quantity of weed seeds allowed in bird feed. Further processing of ingredients such as chopping or shelling seeds or baking seed mixes can help reduce the presence and viability of weed seeds.

Processed bird feed like suet is less likely to harbor viable weed seeds (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Consumers can help by choosing bird feed that is processed or seedless like sunflower hearts, dried fruit, peanuts, suet cakes, and mealworms, and can avoid seed mixes with a large percentage of filler ingredients like milo, red millet, and flax. Attaching trays below feeders can help collect fallen seeds before they reach the ground. Bird seed can also be avoided all together, and feeding birds can instead be done by intentionally growing plants in your yard that produce food for birds. By including bird-friendly plants in your yard, you will also have a better chance of seeing a wide variety of birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

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Seed Shattering Lost – The Story of Foxtail Millet

For a plant to disperse its seeds, it must first let go of them. Sounds obvious, but it is a key step in the dispersal process and an act that is actually coded in a plant’s DNA. As fruits ripen and seeds mature, an abscission layer is formed that separates the seed-bearing fruits from the plant. No longer attached to their parents, seeds are left to their own devices. If all goes well, they will find themselves in a suitable location where they can germinate and grow into a whole new plant, fully equipped to make seed babies of their own.

The releasing of mature seeds is known as shattering, a term most commonly used in reference to grasses and plants with dehiscent seed pods (i.e. fruits that split open when ripe, such as those in the bean and mustard families). In grasses, seeds form along a central stem called a rachis. As the seeds ripen, they separate from the rachis and drop from the plant. In some cases, the rachis is brittle and a section of it breaks off with each seed that falls.

Seed shattering is not a desirable trait when it comes to food crops. It’s easy to see how yields can be poor if seeds disperse before they are harvested. Thus, an essential step in domesticating certain agricultural crops was selecting plants that lacked this particular trait. Instead of dropping mature seeds, such plants hold on to them, making them easy to collect. A simple and naturally occurring mutation in the genes of these plants allowed early farmers to select varieties that were more ideal for agriculture than their wild progenitors.

Genetic studies of agricultural crops have located genes in a number of species that code for seed shattering, confirming that domestication in many cases involved selecting plants with this gene turned off. A recent study, published in Nature Biotechnology (October 2020), took a different route in locating this gene, looking instead at a weedy, wild relative of a crop that was domesticated at least 8000 years ago. Green foxtail (Setaria viridis) is the wild antecedent of foxtail millet (Setaria italica), a crop that, while still commonly grown for food in parts of Asia, is mostly grown for hay, silage, and bird seed in North America. Recently, interest in foxtail millet and other millets (a term used to refer to the grains of several different species of grasses) is on the rise due to the ability of these crops to tolerate drought and heat.

Illustration of three Setaria species from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) published in 1970

Setaria viridis is an abundant, widespread weed adapted to human disturbance. It’s of Eurasian origin but has been present in North America since the early 1800’s and was likely introduced both intentionally and accidentally. It’s an annual grass with prominent, bristly flowerheads that are easily recognizable and the reason for its common name, green foxtail. A handful of other closely related, similar-looking species are also common weeds in North America. Due to useful traits including its short life cycle, small genome, and self-fertility, S. viridis has been used frequently as a model species to carry out a variety of scientific studies. The study referred to above aimed to further enhance the use of green foxtail, particularly when it comes to crop science.

Researchers traveled across the United States collecting nearly 600 samples of green foxtail in order to better understand its genome. They found that the North American population of green foxtail is composed of multiple introductions and that, as the species has followed humans around, it has quickly adapted to diverse climates found across the continent. In examining the genome, they were able to identify the genetic underpinnings for three traits that have importance to agriculture: response to climate, leaf angle (which is used as a predictor of yield in grain crops), and seed shattering.

foxtail millet (Setaria italica) via wikimedia commons

The seed shattering gene – which the researchers named Less Shattering 1 (SvLes1) – was an especially interesting discovery. When compared to the orthologous gene found in foxtail millet, they found that a frameshift mutation had caused a disruption in the gene, turning it off. Using CRISPR (a gene editing tool) they were able to recreate a similar interruption in green foxtail, which resulted in a loss of seed shattering similar to that of foxtail millet. It became clear that selecting plants with this mutation was an essential step in the domestication of this ancient grain.

An excerpt about seed shattering from Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III: 

In many of the world’s domesticated grains, especially those from the founder crops of southwest Asia (i.e. wheat and barley), the earliest phenotypical trait of domestication that archaeobotanists look for is a tough rachis, the small stem by which an individual grain or small cluster of grains is attached to the ear. In their wild form, most grains are programmed to detach easily after the grain ripens; however, in domesticated cereals, the grains remain attached to the ear throughout the harvesting process. This change is an inadvertent result of human harvesting with sickles: as people reap their harvest, the grains with a brittle rachis are dropped and those with a tough rachis are collected, stored, and replanted for successive harvests.

Further Reading:

Weeds of Boise: Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden

Anyone who has maintained a garden or small farm knows that with all the work it takes to keep up on the garden itself, outlying areas can quickly become overtaken by weeds. Low on the list of priorities, areas outside of our garden borders are ideal locations for wild urban vegetation to thrive. Pulling all the weeds within the garden is a big enough task as it is; thus, weeds out of our reach are left to their own devices, occasionally getting mown down by a string trimmer or brush mower (if time allows), but otherwise living largely unscathed. And so, places such as these are excellent for familiarizing oneself with our wild urban flora.

I found an example of this scenario at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden in Boise, Idaho. This community garden is a partnership between Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel (CABI) and Global Gardens, providing refugees in the area an opportunity to grow food for their families and participate in community activities.

When I visited this site, it was clear that the weeds on the edge of the garden had been mowed down at some point. New plants had popped up after the fact while others were in the process of recovering from the “haircut” and putting on new, shrubbier growth. The mowing and the fact that it was late in the summer made identifying remnants of earlier weeds too difficult to bother. Most of the weeds that I did find were either summer annuals or perennials. A visit in the spring would reveal an entirely different cast of characters.

I stayed on the border of the garden, not wanting to invade anyone’s plot or snoop around too much. The point of the visit was to highlight weeds found outside of the borders of a garden anyway. I would imagine that, since the garden is used to grow annual fruits and vegetables, most of the weeds in the beds would be annuals as well. Longer-lived weeds don’t generally tolerate regular disturbance and instead find refuge in unkept areas outside of cultivation.

Below are a few photos from the site along with a preliminary list of the weeds that I found.

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila)

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

black medic (Medicago lupulina)

Weeds found at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden:

  • Amaranthus spp. (pigweed)
  • Bassia scoparia (kochia)
  • Chenopodium album (lamb’s quarters)
  • Chondrilla juncea (rush skeletonweed)
  • Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed)
  • Conyza canadensis (horseweed)
  • Digitaria sanguinalis (crabgrass)
  • Epilobium brachycarpum (tall annual willowherb)
  • Euphorbia maculata (spotted spurge)
  • Hordeum jubatum (foxtail barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Malva neglecta (common mallow)
  • Medicago lupulina (black medic)
  • Oenothera biennis (common evening-primrose)
  • Plantago lanceolata (narrowleaf plantain)
  • Polygonum aviculare (prostrate knotweed)
  • Rumex crispus (curly dock)
  • Setaria sp. (foxtail)
  • Sonchus sp. (sow thistle)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Trifolium pratense (red clover)
  • Ulmus pumila (Siberian elm)
  • Verbena bracteata (prostrate vervain)

Like all posts in the Weeds of Boise series, this will be updated as I identify and photograph more of the weeds found in this location.