My friends think I’m crazy. Walking down a beautiful mountain path, be it public or private, all else will cease to exist for me except this plant that I ungraciously pull from its roots on the spot. I unceremoniously stop the conversation, veer off course, and decisively rip it from the ground.
Being an herbalist, most of my companions are used to me waxing on about the virtues of this or that under story inhabitant — gently pointing to some wild thing. So when they see me jumping on this innocent creature with an enthusiasm akin to glee, they are taken aback.
But, I remind them, not all plants are friends. How many of us have we learned this lesson with poison ivy? Once we do we learn quickly to identify it and steer clear. Yet this plant doesn’t cause a rash or irritation. Neither is it poisonous or toxic in any way.
Yet my eyes have learned to scan for it and my body has been finely trained to burst forth and remove it from its nourishment of soil and water immediately. It’s all for the good of the whole — I’m saving myself and others from its insidious ways.
Once I explain, you’ll soon see.
Remember back to those wonderful fall days hiking or biking about, beautiful sky above, and amazing fall colors. And then remember those hours you spent picking seed hitchhikers off your pants — to the point where you almost thought throwing out your clothes would be less of a hassle.
Well let me introduce you, so that you too can become a curiosity to your hiking mates as you dive in for the kill.
There are many hitchhiker seed plants around WNC but the ones that are most prolific and the most annoying are in the Bidens genus (yes just like the vice president, bless his heart; let’s hope he’s less distasteful).
Bidens bipinnata, also called Spanish needles, have yellow flowers with strongly dissected leaves that very much resemble ragweed. Part of the composite family, their flowers spread open to emit elongated “seeds” or needles with 2-4 “barbs” on the end that love to stick to clothes, hair, socks, shoes, animals, and even skin.
Bidens frondosa, with the appropriate common name of Devil’s beggartick, have leaves in groups of three leaflets with teeth on the edges. The flower is yellow and spreads to reveal smaller and flatter seeds with two distinct barbs on the end, which will grab onto anything to hitch a ride.
Worse still, these plants grow in fields, roadsides, streambanks, and pond edges — all the places the humans like to be — and tend to spread in clusters. Both plants bloom and spread their seeds from August to October. Though Bidens are native to North America, they have spread and become invasive on other continents (Europe & New Zealand).
The good news is, in both cases, these plants are shallow rooted annuals and thus easy to pull out entirely with a good tug. The seeds, I recently learned, are eaten by ducks and other birds as well as muskrats. So if you see any hungry muskrats, point them to WNC — there’s plenty to eat. Until then, I’ll keep yanking.
Lee Warren is a homesteader, herbalist, writer and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm at Earthaven Ecovillage. She is also a co-founder of the Village Terraces CoHousing Neighborhood and the Program Coordinator for the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference (sewisewomen.com).