Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Butterweed, Butterwhat?

A green wood by a river

A surprising flower in Thatcher Woods

At this time of year, the woodland savannah is green, green, green. The spring ephemerals have quit blooming and the summer players—woodland sunflower, Joe pie weed, the grasses and goldenrods—are still mustering their strength. So as you walk through the green shade, there’s not much color—oh, some delicate white sweet Cicely, perhaps, but little more than that. It’s enough to make one wonder how the butterflies and bees are getting their nectar and pollen. You get your "plant eyes" on, in the sense that you are identifying by leaf shape, habit of growth and shade of green: you focus on fundamentals, on what really characterizes each plant, rather than the gaudy flower.

So there a fellow forest preserve volunteer and I were last week, walking through the bottomland along the Des Plaines River, comparing specimens of Asian and native honeysuckle, avoiding poison ivy, noticing the raspberries coming along, listening to the bull frogs croaking and the woodpeckers and robins commenting on perceived conditions, and generally enjoying the green gloom, when a vast flare of sunlit yellow caught our eyes. Across a flooded river inlet was at least an acre of three-foot tall plants topped by bright yellow flowers where such things shouldn’t be, as if a crew of flashy strangers had crashed a Quaker meeting. We were compelled to investigate, which involved some navigation around the water and dealing with a muddy sloping bank.

What we found was a plant neither of us recognized. Now, without boasting I can say I am familiar with most of the plants in Thatcher Woods: even if I don’t yet know their names, I recognize them, like neighbors from the next block over. And my friend is pretty good, too. There are also various plants I’ve read about and then recognize when I encounter them, as when I first saw hoary puccoon in a dry prairie I was visiting. But this? Deeply lobed leaves, a daisy-like composite flower, seed puffs like a dandelion, and a ridged hollow stem—nope, never saw it before. Never expected to see it or knew to look for it. Could it be a Senecio, a ragwort, of some kind? Well, it didn’t match anything in the Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers I had with me. Those leaves. That somewhat brittle, easily snapped, hollow stem. We figured it might be a non-native invasive, introduced since the book was published.

Later I described the plant to my colleague, an environmental biology instructor, also a plant geek and a superior sleuth. The next day a name, Senecio glabellus—alternatively Packera glabella, common name butterweed—and links to Missouri and Ohio websites showed up in my in-box. The plant is also called cressleaf groundsel (“groundsel” is from an old Anglo-Saxon word “groundeswelge” meaning ground swallower) and it is toxic to grazing animals—though deer have enough sense to avoid it. Now that I had the name, I could easily check Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region: they say the plant is native to southern Illinois, but has been introduced in Du Page County. Illinois Wildflowers says the same and gives it the epithet “weedy,” adding that its native range has expanded north from southern to central Illinois. Yet here it is, ensconced and happy in Cook County.

A couple of days later I went back to take pictures. There had been rain, and the whole area was flooded. A doe and two fawns appeared nearby, sensed me upwind and moved off, not too fast. A bullfrog croaked. A great blue heron grunted in a slightly higher key. The butterweeds stood blooming bravely, up to their waists in water.

Related Posts:
A Date with Some Turtles
Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Weeds You Can Eat

Foraging while gardening

Lady's Thumb in bloom

The other day, while engaging in my hobby of pulling weeds, I started thinking about categories: weeds, weeds, and weeds. There are the bullies, the thugs, the thieves, the ones that, unable to fit comfortably into a given plant community, will enter your garden or a natural area and through various mechanisms—high reproduction rate, extreme adaptability, quick genetic adaptation, allellopathic chemicals released in the soil, resistance to insects and pathogens, or simply shading out other plants—can and will rapidly disrupt a functioning ecosystem or garden. They are the reason I go on bindweed patrol nearly every day during the growing season and forest preserve volunteers spend too much of their free time getting after buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and teasel.

Plants in the wrong place
There are other weeds that are plants simply in the wrong place, as determined by the gardener who, for example, gets to decide that grass shouldn’t grow among the flowering perennials, or that non-natives shouldn’t grow among the natives. Some people, such as a permaculturalist or two, might tell you there are no weeds, merely plants taking advantage of situations, filling in a niche or a vacuum, since nature doesn’t like vacancies. Ecologists might speak of “invasives” or “weedy species,” but “weed” is not exactly part of the scientific lexicon either. It is a term defined most fully by the human-designed context of yard, garden, and farm and as a result can also be a legal term. I’ve heard landscapers recommend plants that have achieved the legal standing of noxious weeds. How should one feel about this?

Weeds with benefits
There is another category of weed, however: those plants that, native or not, might take over if you let them, but if managed properly, add to a yard’s biodiversity, don’t look bad, and offer nutritious supplements to your diet and that of various pollinators and other wildlife. This is a category useful to gardeners relaxed about what fussier gardeners might consider “appearances,” who don’t like to kill plants unnecessarily, and understand that mostly, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to me, a few dandelions in the grass are tolerable, and almost everyone knows you can add their young leaves to a salad for extra tang.

When I’m out weeding, I’m foraging as well. There are thinnings, natural microgreens such as parsley and radishes (both leaves and tiny red roots) that must be pulled so the others can grow strong and healthy, the cilantro that pops up everywhere, and the oregano that always needs cutting back. My iced tea gets brewed with handfuls of the mint that appears in unlikely places. These are plants that have been let in to the garden on purpose, however. What about the others, the ones who just show up one day? Lately I’ve been adding the leaves of young violets, Asiatic dayflowers and lady’s thumbs to the evening salad.

Violets
Bumblebees like the nectar
Our native common violets (Viola sororia sororia) grace the yard in early spring. Bumblebees appreciate them, since they bloom when little else does, but lawn fetishists loath them. In turf grass they don’t really take over, but give them some bare soil in a semi-shady, moist environment, and watch out. Not only do they have their lovely spurred flowers, but later, in late May and early June, they have a second greenish, unnoticeable bloom, at which time you’ll notice hundreds of babies around each mother plant. This is because the second, cleistogamous, bloom produces seeds which are ejected from the capsules in fall.

Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
Young violets
spots under bushes and trees) you’ll want to thin them out before they develop their tubers. Young violet leaves are good in salads, though, as pointed out in Edible Wild Plants, they are “somewhat bland and best mixed with other greens.” I haven’t tried other suggested uses yet, such as candying the flowers, adding the leaves to soup as a thickener, or drying the leaves for tea. They are a source of nectar for bumble bees. Halictid and mason bees and Syrphid flies also visit the flowers and birds occasionally eat the seeds, while caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies and small mammals nibble the leaves.

Asiatic Dayflowers
Asiatic dayflower
The young stems and lance-shaped leaves of Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) are also good in salads. Their flavor is also bland, but but because they are somewhat thick and fleshy they can add some body and variety of shape to your lettuce. These creeping annuals have a pretty blue and white flower, at which I have seen bees, but in my experience are best picked before they bloom. More mature, blooming plants can be steamed like spinach. You could also add them with other chopped greens to a saute. They are prolific, and will appear seemingly at random, but, in my yard, at least cause no harm and are not pernicious, though they can be pesky in the wrong place. Their roots don’t run deep and if you miss a few one day you can get them the next. The dayflower is also an alley weed par excellence, one of that wild tribe that clusters around telephone poles, along fences and next to garages. Besides their usefulness to bees, songbirds, such as mourning doves, eat the seeds.

Lady’s Thumb
Lady's Thumb in an alley
Another player in the alley mix is lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), though you’ll also find this low plant sprawling in the woods, vacant lots, and neglected corners of your yard. The narrow leaves have a dark triangular “thumbprint.” The tiny pink flowers are clumped tightly together on erect stems. They have a mild flavor and again are best in salads when young. You can also steam or boil them like spinach if you collect enough. Caterpillars also like them; those of coppers eat the foliage while gray hairstreaks eat the flowers and fruit. Birds like the seeds. Though the plant hails originally from Europe, as Dr. John Hilty at Illinois Wildflowers says, “the ecological value of this little plant is
rather high, notwithstanding its weedy nature.”

None of these three plants will go away without a lot of effort and the use of toxic chemicals. They are so generally pervasive that if banished from the yard they’ll surely reappear later, or most likely sooner. Yet they aren’t thuggish, look pretty nice, and offer benefits to humans and non-humans alike. These are weeds I can live with, and do.

Note: It goes without saying that no one should eat any foraged plants unless sure of their identification. References include Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson, and Illinois Wildflowers.

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Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
Creeping Charlie Love