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Beggar-ticks

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Christine Tailer

By Christine Tailer
HCP columnist

Oh, how they drive me crazy, those pretty yellow flowers whose petaled heads turn into barbed seeds that stick to the dogs’ fur, the legs of my jeans and dig deeply into my socks. It is the sock aspect that really bothers me the most. The small barbs work their way through the knitting and into my skin and cause infuriating discomfort with every single step. I have no choice but to stop what I am doing, sit down, remove my work boot, take off my sock and carefully pick the barbs out from the weave.

I had always thought of these obnoxious barbed seeds as "hitchhikers," and they do indeed hitch a ride on whoever might be passing by. In this manner, they find their way to a new home where they can spread and flourish, but just this week, as I was clearing summer's overgrowth from around the barns, all the while trying to avoid ending up covered with the unwanted barbs, I noticed a pleasant peppery aroma.

I plucked a flower head that had not quite dried and gone to seed. I squished it between my fingers and yes, indeed, the yellow hitchhiker flowers were the source of the peppery scent that surrounded me. Perhaps I really should learn more about this weed. I wondered. Was it possible that it might even have a beneficial use?

I love to learn, and learn I did. I soon realized that the weed has many common names, none of which are particularly complimentary, ranging from devil’s-pitchfork, to stick-tight, to beggar-tick. These names all obviously refer to the seeds’ tenacious and infuriating ability to stick to passers-by. For some reason, the name beggar-tick struck a chord with me, and that is the name I have now adopted. What I have always considered to be hitchhikers, I now think of as the dreaded beggar-tick. Feels quite right.

I was surprised to learn that beggar-ticks are indigenous to the creek valley. I had supposed that something so obnoxious must surely be a marauding invasive species, but no. Our neck of the woods has always been their home. I learned that beggar-ticks thrive in moist disturbed soil that even though wet, is often bathed in sunshine. The soil around our farm fields and barns provides the perfect habitat in which beggar-tick can flourish, and flourish they do.

I was pleased to discover that butterflies are attracted to beggar-tick, as are several species of bees, including the honeybee. The yellow flowers are actually the third most common source of nectar for honey production in the southern states. Small rodents are also fond of dining on the barbed seeds, as are sparrows and finches, and rabbits enjoy nibbling on the serrated leaves. Beggar-tick stems often grow to over four feet in length, and thus provide ample leafy greens for the creek valley rabbits to enjoy.

I also learned that there is indeed some human benefit to be found in beggar-tick. The plant is an aster, and like other asters, was used by the valley’s indigenous people, who in turn taught the settlers, to make a tincture from the root for use in treating pain and inflammation. Beggar-tick was also used as bedding, quite obviously before it went to seed, though I could find no written reference to the pleasant peppery scent. I can only imagine how lying down to sleep on a bed made of beggar-tick’s long stems and multiple yellow flower heads, would lead to a restful and pleasant night’s slumber. I might dream of waking up to a delicious peppered omelet for breakfast, or perhaps biscuits and smothered in a peppery gravy.  

And so, it seems, that with just a wee bit of knowledge, my perspective has indeed changed. I have certainly gained a new appreciation for what I once simply considered a noxious weed. Perhaps it is not so totally wicked after all. Perhaps I will consider harvesting some next summer, before the flowerheads dry and the barbed seeds stick to my clothes, and perhaps I will weave a peppery scented mat, set it down in the middle of the orchard, and lie back as I look up at the sky. I might even close my eyes and take a midsummer nap. I’ll be sure to let you know.

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com. 

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