If you have farm animals or pets you have probably encountered the annoying “burrs” in their coats, which are the seed pods of some common plants that are generally encountered in the fall. And if you have ever walked in the woods or fields and brushed against these plants you’ve probably had the unfortunate experience of trying to pull these sticky seeds off your clothing. This is an extremely proficient way for many plants to spread their seeds near and far.
Burdock (Arctium minus), is a bi-annual plant. In the first year it puts down a thick, long taproot and a rosette of large broad leaves. In the late summer of the second year burdock sends up long flowering stems. The stems may be streaked with purplish red and they have a grooved, rough surface. Burdock has purple tuft-like flowers at the top of a rounded mass of green, hooked bracts. The bracts turn brown and form the familiar round burr as the seeds ripen and dry. The round seed clusters of burdock will stick to almost anything.
Left alone in good soil burdock leaves can grow huge – 2 foot long and wide. The leaves have a grayish looking underside because they are covered with fine white hairs. The hollow flowering stems can reach 5 feet into the air and are thick and tough.
Burdock usually grows in full sun and prefers rich soil although it can pop up in other places. You must be vigilant and remove young plants from pastures and other areas as soon as you see them as the older they get the harder they are to remove, and letting them go to seed compounds the problem. Even when kept mowed, burdock will struggle along and produce its burrs on plants a few inches from the ground. The flowers will continue to ripen and become burrs if cut from the plant while still green and are often found in hay.
Asian species of burdock are cultivated for their roots and American species also have edible roots. The young leaves of burdock can be eaten as a salad green. The stems can be peeled and cooked also. Burdock has many medicinal uses, the roots, seeds and dried leaves are used in a variety of home remedies.
If pets, livestock or even you get burdocks in your hair cover the burdocks with gobs of cheap hair conditioner and let it soak in for a few minutes. The burrs will then easily comb out. Don’t pick off burrs from your socks and gloves and toss them on the ground near your house unless you want burdock to sprout up there in the spring.
Stick-tight, or Beggar’s ticks (Bidens frondosa) is another plant that uses stickiness to distribute its seeds. It’s also a common fall “condition”. The small, dark brown, flat seeds are oval shaped with two prongs on one end that grab onto fur and clothing. Hundreds of the small seeds can attach themselves to you as you walk through a field and will come home with you to grow in your yard next year.
Stick-tights grow in moist, sunny areas and are a common weed in nurseries and home landscapes as well as along roadside ditches and in moist fields. Because the seed can lay dormant until conditions are good, stick-tights may pop up in the garden several times each season. They persist until a hard freeze in the fall.
Stick-tights are annual plants that can germinate all through summer and they mature rapidly. The compound leaves consist of blade shaped, deeply toothed leaflets with a prominent mid-vein in groups of 3-5 leaflets. They are attached opposite each other on a squared stem. On the end of each leaf is a group of 3 leaflets with the center leaflet being the largest.
The flowers of stick-tight are small sunflower like things with yellow outer petals and brownish-yellow centers. They develop into a cluster of the hooked seeds with the true seed enclosed in the brown papery husk that sticks to you. Birds do eat the seeds, but obviously not enough of them.
Hair conditioner will also help you get stick tights out of hair and fur. Make sure to dispose of them in the trash, not in the yard or compost pile.
Common cocklebur ( Xanthium strumarium) the prickly burrs of this plant look a bit like burdock burrs but they are smaller and longer rather than round like burdock burrs. Each burr consists of two pods with a seed in each. The spines and coating of this burr are very hard and can cause intestinal problems if animals ingest them when grazing or trying to remove them from their fur.
Cockleburs are annual plants with stems that are spotted with brown or purple. The leaves are triangular with wavy edges and a rough texture. They have 3 prominent surface veins. Mature plants get to be about 3 foot tall and have several branches and a thick taproot. The stems and leaves of cocklebur can cause liver damage if animals eat them.
The flowers of cocklebur consist of clusters of inconspicuous male flowers and female flowers that have the immature burr (fruit) attached. They are in the axils of the leaves. Each burr is covered in spines but there are two longer spines on the bottom that help the burr attach to fur or clothes. Interestingly one seed in the burr can germinate almost at once but the other will lay dormant for one or more years.
Cockleburs are generally found in uncultivated fields, and untended lands in full sun. They are not as common as burdock in Michigan, thankfully. They should be eradicated when found because of their dangerous qualities.
Take care on your fall rambles that you avoid these sticky plants. If they do get on your clothes or hair be careful where you throw the seeds you pull off. You don’t want them growing close to home. Pets that wander should be examined daily and the sticky burrs removed so that they don’t cause matts or digestive problems.
If you liked this article here are some more you may want to read.
Purple nut sedge and our early ancestors
Herbal uses for the rose
Edible landscaping that also provides fall color
You can read the authors weekly garden blog here.