A wide variety of flowering plants go un-noticed by the majority of people, even if we consider ourselves ‘plant lovers.’ These plants are rarely planted by us, they exist in nature on the edges of our daily lives - on the edges of paths, on the edges of woods, on the edges of wet areas, on the edges of our vision. Further, they constitute a category most people call ‘weeds.’ Eloise Butler would argue that they should be more appreciated. She wrote: "It seems necessary to write a work in favor of what are usually called weeds, which may be defined as plants out of place, growing where we wish something else to grow." July 2, 1911.
Here are five late summer to autumn edge plants that may be growing in or near your garden. You may not want to keep them there, but at least, listen to their story. As Eloise wrote: "Every natural growth has a beauty of form, if not of color, that needs only to be seen to be appreciated." Aug. 6, 1911.
The link on the plant name takes you to a full information page with more photos of that plant.
This can be a big plant, bushy looking, the leaves somewhat resembling a Bull Thistle from a distance but without the spines. It is hard to miss when it grows to eight feet high, but at shorter heights it becomes a background plant because the flowers are small, but many, appearing in a compound pyramidal shaped panicle. You hardly see the two kinds of pale yellow flowers in the flowerhead as they do not protrude above the green phyllaries that surround the head. The flowers open several at a time, over a number of weeks, each producing dry seeds with a fluffy white pappus for wind dispersion.
The common names of Burnweed and Fireweed reflect the plants tendency to quickly colonize a recently burned area. Prolific seed production allows it to colonize any disturbed open area.
The crushed foliage has a disagreeable odor and an acrid taste but that hasn’t stopped its use in folk medicines, both in North America and in the rest of the world where the plant has found its way.
The finely chopped foliage and root, were used together to make decoctions, tinctures and extracted oils to treat piles (hence the other common name of ‘Pilewort’), dysentery and it was reported to be especially effective for an accumulation of mucus such as in colds and allergies.
In some parts of the world the foliage is used for salads and as a potherb. Merritt Fernald wrote: "There is no reason, except the odor, to prevent our using it. Cooking may make it palatable to us."
One of the authors of the plant name (for scientific description) - the ‘Raf’ - was Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, (1783-1840), European polymath who traveled in the United States, lived here many years, collected specimens, and published over 6,700 binomial names for plants. He applied to be botanist on the Lewis & Clark expedition but President Jefferson turned him down in favor of training Lewis to act as botanist and saving the expense of another person.
Here is another plant that blends into the background around us, unless it becomes a sever footer which is then hard to ignore. The branched panicle of small flowers, where several are always going to seed, presents a rag-top image of a plant in its final stages of the season, when in fact, it is just starting on a long season of seed production. Like Burnweed, the very small flowerheads have two kinds of disc flowers, but one is a ray flower with small white rays projection above the green phyllaries of the head. The inner florets are yellow.
The common names of Horseweed and Mare’s tail reflect the shape of the plant - a long tall stem with linear leaves topped by a more widely spaced flower panicle - all resembling a horse's tail. Originally, it was classified with the Fleabanes in the Erigeron genus which is where the name Canada Fleabane is derived from.
While most city folk are oblivious to the plant, it cannot be ignored in the farm belt where along with Palmer Amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) and Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), it is a pest of the crop fields with ever-growing populations resistant to the common herbicide Glyphosate. In addition Horseweed is host to aster yellows and the tarnished plant bug which affects alfalfa and cotton.
It has become a world wonder, originally arriving in Europe from North American in the 17th century - perhaps with the fur trade. By 1653 it was being grown in the Botanic Gardens of Paris and soon thereafter was a weed all over Paris. In 1669 it was in England.
Nevertheless - it found use as a medicinal herb after it was brought to Europe. The whole plant was gathered and dried. One of the constituents of value was a volatile oil, which when distilled was called Oil of Erigeron (remember - the plant was originally classified with the fleabanes in the genus Erigeron). It was used to treat hemorrhage from the lungs or intestinal tract, inflamed tonsils and inflammation of the throat - although it was said to have an odor and a bitter taste.
Look around you in the alleys and untended sidewalks - in late summer and fall you will find this adventive plant.
This species is worldwide in distribution. Because of its low branching growth habit most people never notice it. Being an annual it comes up in different places every year. While the flowers are whitish to purplish, they are small and easily missed under the leaves as are the green berries that form from them. But when the fruit matures to a shiny black they may catch your eye in a sideways glance.
The Nightshade family is well named as some of the most poisonous plants are in its domain including the deadly Belladonna (Atropa belladonna). The genus Solanum is derived from the Latin Solor, meaning ‘I ease’ referring to the somewhat narcotic power of some folk medicines created from the plant.
The poisonous qualities of Black Nightshade vary with the period of growth. The leaves and green berries, containing the toxin solanine, are poisonous to humans and mammals. Cattle and sheep avoid the plant. After the berries mature and turn black, they are edible, in limited quantities, by adult humans but should be avoided by children. In fact, Merritt Fernald writes that cooked mature fruit was commonly used in pies and preserves in the central U.S. in the 19th century.
The level of solanine in the plant varies with the season, more early, less later. All members of the Nightshade family have a narcotic property, which is why some of them are highly poisonous.
However, this plant family also includes the tomato and the potato. Culpepper wrote of this species: "Do not mistake the deadly nightshade for this, if you know it not, you may then let them both alone."
Black Nightshade is said to possess greater narcotic properties than the Climbing Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, with which you are probably more familiar as it is found more readily and has bright red berries in the fall. These Nightshades are two of twelve species of Solanum found in Minnesota.
This little devil is probably not growing in your garden but could be nearby if there is moist soil which it prefers. The name says it all. The leaves are arrow-shaped with the base having a distinct pair of downward pointing lobes that grasp the stem. The second part of the name is handled by the stem which has rows of backward pointing prickles. When most people feel a plant stem they start low and move their fingers upward and the surprise in this case is torn flesh - hence the name ‘Tearthumb’.
In marshes the plant could be considered invasive as it usually appears in great numbers in late Summer. It has a number of clusters of very small white to pinkish flowers along the stems and on the terminal end. Stems tend to sprawl and can be up to six feet in length. The leaves are not many and until the white flower clusters appear in late summer the plant is almost invisible.
It is not known that the plant was ever used for any purpose in North America but when it made it way to Europe the Irish are said to have used the plant to treat kidney pain and abdominal pains.
Each plant produces a number of seeds so if you find it growing in or near your garden you may want to carefully eliminate it.
Willowherb is another plant that is seldom noticed until seed time in the fall. Like the Tearthumb, it prefers moist sites so it may be near but not in your garden. It is a perennial, growing erectly from 2 to 4 feet high, but it only makes its appearance in late summer when everything else is reaching the peak of maturity and is thus obscured by those plants. Like the first four plants listed here, the flowers are small but with elongated calyx tubes and until the white to pinkish flower spreads its 4 petals, are hardly noticeable. In the genus Epilobium, the corolla tube and sepals are attached to the top of the ovary.
The calyx tube becomes a long seed capsule which at maturity splits along four sides and the sides peel backwards exposing tiny 1/32 inch seeds which have long hairy tuffs attached for dispersion by the wind. At this point, the whole top of the plant looks like a visual tangled jungle. While it produces many seeds, it also spreads by a rhizomatous root system and thus can colonize large areas quickly.
References: Many sources are used for this information. The most important are #'s W2, W3, W4, W7, 28B, 28C. Some specific background comes from Fernald, #6; Mrs. Grieve, #7, Culpepper, #4b, Britton & Brown, #1A, Hutchins, #12. The individual information pages linked on the plant name provide additional information. Details of reference source are on this list: References