Monday, September 5, 2011

It's hard to love a plant like Spanish needle

Spanish needle's small, daisylike flower (left) turns into a sphere of barbed seeds that latch on to anything they touch.

Simply Living
September 5, 2011

I'm not a fan of Spanish needle (Bidens alba), but I feel like I should be because this white, flowering relative of asters has many of the attributes I look for in a plant.

It attracts wildlife (especially bees and butterflies), has both edible and medicinal properties and is a Florida native. However, it also produces an abundance of hard-to-remove, needlelike black seeds that are frustratingly difficult to remove from any article of clothing that happens to brush against them.

I've been battling Spanish needle on our property for 20 years, and I haven't won yet. Right now, I'm looking out my office window at an explosion of these leggy weeds that have sprung up in what is supposed to be my ginger garden.

I'm trying to like them. I really am. But two decades of disdain is difficult to overcome.

I'm not alone in my feelings. Ever since people have been in contact with Spanish needle, they have made up names to express their impression of a plant so intent on propagating itself through contact that its seeds adhere like barbs to anything they touch. Among its many monikers are beggartick, hairy beggar's tick, shepherd's needle and devil's sticktight.

Spanish needle is a perennial wildflower with a deep taproot and small, daisylike blooms. It likes hot weather, it's drought- resistant and it's not particular about soil conditions. It isn't fussy about location, either, growing well in both sun and shade. Although its white, yellow-centered flowers are tiny (about an inch across), each 3-foot-tall plant has multiple blooms.

When flowering, it is innocuous and even beneficial. Some people might even say the flowers are pretty. I wouldn't be among them, but flying insects must think so. The plant attracts numerous butterflies, bees, wasps and dragonflies and is the larval host for the emerald moth, dainty sulphur and Florida duskywing butterflies.

After flowers fade and seeds develop, the Spanish needle earns its negative nicknames. A single plant can produce more than 1,000 two-toothed seeds, each with the annoying ability to cling tightly to hair, fur or cloth. Its hitchhiking habit serves the plant well, enabling it to do what plants need to do: spread out and reproduce. I have to admit it is extremely successful at those goals.

On one level, I appreciate Spanish needle. It is a hardy, resilient, determined plant. It has managed to survive — even thrive at times — in places it is not wanted. Those very traits, however, also make me dislike it. I can't tell you how many times I've struggled to dislodge the barbed seeds from my husband's white socks or from the hem of any skirt I've been foolish enough to wear when I've walked in the woods.

There's a strong movement afoot to embrace native plants. Spanish needle may be a Florida native that bees and butterflies adore, but that doesn't mean I have to like it or want it in my yard. Neither should I feel guilt each time I fantasize about ripping out every last specimen (as if that were even possible!).

No, some plants' negative features simply overshadow their attributes. That's how it is for me and Spanish needle. Sometimes, the best weeds are the ones growing elsewhere

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