My Big Weed

You know how sometimes some plant appears in your garden, and you don’t really know what it is? You end up watching it awhile, and eventually you decide whether you want to keep it – or not. This spring, a bright green rosette of leaves burst through the soil in front of our house. Strong and healthy, you could almost see it getting taller by the day, so it didn’t take me that long to figure out that this was not anything I had planted. Still, I was somewhat intrigued as to how far this vigorous wunder-plant would go, so I let it be. Truth be told – part of the reason for this was also that, in usual volunteer fashion, it had planted itself where removing it involved the moving of rocks and other hard labor. So, until I had time to delve into it, it just had to wait!

Kind of dramatic, don't you think?

Check out those jagged edges and spiny bumps in the middle of the leaves. Kind of dramatic, don’t you think? No wonder I was intrigued…

A close-up of the leaf, but also, notice how much soot/dirt is gathered in the joint where the leaf meets the stem. Yuck. This made me think about that map that called out the fact that Oregon has the highest asthma rate of   the 50 states. It is true that Portland has some of the worst air quality in the US.

A close-up of the leaf, but also, notice how much soot/dirt is gathered in the joint where the leaf meets the stem. Yuck. This made me think about that map that called out the fact that Oregon has the highest asthma rate of the 50 states. It is true that Portland has some of the worst air quality in the country. Which is something one doesn’t really expect of a city with such a holier-than-thou attitude in terms of sustainability, and considering how well endowed we are with park areas, trees, and gardens. It just goes to show – nothing is ever the way it seems…

By now, I’m pretty sure I’m dealing with some kind of thistle. The whole thing is covered in barbs and spines, and it’s getting taller and more massive every day. Some leaves are more than a foot long! It is definitely something you’d think twice about before pulling out with your bare hands. At this point, I’m almost starting to worry a little about leaving it in place for so long. This plant is a monster!

I got a book at the library called Northwest Weeds by Ronald J. Taylor. Although I leafed through it from beginning to end, I didn't find anything that looked like that monster-like thing growing in my garden.

I borrowed a book from the library called Northwest Weeds by Ronald J. Taylor. Although I leafed through it from beginning to end, I didn’t find anything that looked like that monster-like thing growing in my garden.

Eventually a flower appeared. Now I saw it! By now I think it might be one of those tall thistly things grazing the ditches of country roads. In my head, I still thought it was a thistle.

Eventually a flower appeared. Aha! Now I’m starting to see it! I think it might be one of those tall thistly things grazing the ditches of country roads. In my head, at least, I still thought it was a thistle.

It sure looks like a thistle, don't you think?

And who can blame me? It sure looks kind of like a thistle, don’t you think? At this point it is taller than I, so in order to photograph it, I had to hold the camera far over my head.

A few days and a few more spikes later, I'm pretty sure that's what I'm looking at. Except, I don't think I've ever noticed them in their green state before.

A few days and a few more spikes later, I’m still pretty sure that’s what I’m looking at. Except, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed them in their green state before.

Time for verification. I went down to the place where I usually pick the prickly seed heads to use for wreaths. Sure enough! Along with last year's dried, skeletal versions, there were also new plants - identical to mine.

Time for some field verification. I went down to the place where I usually pick the prickly seed heads to use for wreaths. Sure enough! Along with last year’s dried, skeletal remains, there were also new, lush, green plants – identical to mine.

But, since it is such a common weed – why couldn’t I find it in the Northwest Weeds book? None of the thistles in the book looked anything like it. I decided to leaf through the book one last time, from cover to cover. And this time, there it was! It just wasn’t in the Thistle section. As it turns out, it is a plant called Teasel – a “coarse biennial herb”, according to the weed book. Its Latin name is Dipsacus sylvestris. In Greek, “dipsa” means thirsty, which might refer to the way water (and Portland pollutants, as you saw above) gathers where two opposite sets of leaves meet around the stem.

Supposedly it has light purple-blue flowers, so I’m tempted to wait and see what they look like. Heaven knows there are other projects to work on, so leaving it in all its glory for another few days (weeks?) will not be a problem. But how, you wonder, did it end up in the garden? Who knows, but I imagine some seeds might have separated from some of the seed heads I’ve brought home. Even though I try to sterilize them before putting them in wreaths (half an hour in the oven at 350 degrees) chances are I missed a few. They make such a good wreath ingredient, I imagine I will still be bringing them home.

A wreath I made for my dear Aunt Anna's funeral.

A wreath I made using Teasel seed heads. I got that idea from my dear friend Kat, who was the most sophisticated creative spirit I have ever met.

But since the book states it is a “noxious weed” in some areas, and it is indeed abundant along roadsides around Portland, I have decided I will not be trying to cultivate this plant myself. 😉 However, I will wait – and not just to see the color of the flower. You see, I discovered another cool thing about this plant. It is a veritable aphid magnet! The other night when I did my usual rounds, I noticed that it is absolutely covered! Oddly enough, there were also ants running up and down the juicy, succulent stalks, and somehow interacting with the aphids.

Here you can see the aphids crowding on the stalk, like cows in a barn. The black dots on the unfocused leaf on the left are ants.

Here you can see the aphids crowding on the stalk. Notice how they all seem to be facing the same way, like cows in a barn. The black dots on the unfocused leaf on the left, are ants.

 

A little research later, I’m absolutely astounded! As it turns out, ants have “aphid farms” where they collect their herds, and milk sweet-tasting “honeydew” from their livestock. If predators – like lady bugs – try to get their share, the ants attack. If humans (like yours truly) were to try to remove the aphids by spraying them with the water hose, the ants would go after them and bring them back to the barn. How about that??? I’m completely floored….  If you don’t believe me – check this video out! So, from this, I draw the perhaps faulty conclusion that having this mega-weed in my garden is – at least for now – a good thing. It keeps aphids off just about every other plant – at least it seems that way. And, since I really don’t care particularly much about the well-being of the Teasel, I’m more than happy to have it be the host plant of an aphid farm. Much rather so than any of my more treasured specimens. Sure, the Teasel isn’t exactly a diminutive plant, but at this point, it earns its space. And, to tell you the truth – I actually think it’s pretty cool looking! (However misplaced…)

Ant milking honeydew from an aphid. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ant milking honeydew from an aphid. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the time comes, (before it goes to seed) I will pull it out. At that point, the act of doing so will probably be a little more involved than if I had done it earlier. But then I guess I wouldn’t have learned anything. 

 

 

About annamadeit

Born and raised in Sweden, my aesthetics and outlook on life are strongly shaped by a culture rich in history and tradition. I care a great deal about environmental responsibility, and my aesthetic reflects the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia. I was trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati and as a color specialist at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm. I'm obsessed with plants and gardens, and aim to take my skill set a step further by designing gardens as well as interiors. As someone so aptly said: " Architecture is the skin that separates the exterior from the interior". So true - you can't successfully focus on one without incorporating the other. I'm also an avid cook, and I love to ski. In addition, I put time and efforts into trying to rectify things that I feel are wrong in my immediate community. As you will see, The Creative Flux will touch on all these things, and more. For sure, it's all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blog!
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10 Responses to My Big Weed

  1. If you decide you want more I’ve got 3 qty 4″ pots full of seedlings Alison grew for me! I love these things and collected them along the river backs behind my old office on the South Waterfront. I’ve been trying to decide where to plant them every since the spring swap. Thanks for the reminder of just how big they get.

  2. linda says:

    Oh Teasel …come to my garden !

  3. Alison says:

    Holy Moly! I didn’t realize they would get so tall. I did know as soon as I saw your pictures with the flower buds that it was teasel. Isn’t the ants milking aphids thing cool? I’ve had a problem with aphids on the pepper plants in my greenhouse, and I brought in ladybugs to try to control them. So far, so good. Maybe I should just introduce the teasel seedlings.

    • annamadeit says:

      Yeah, go for the Teasel, Alison. It seems the ants chose it specifically for its green pastures. And, in the video, it said that they move their herds to where they can get the biggest ROI. There are plenty of other delicacies to choose from in my garden – yet they chose the Teasel. I think you should try it! Yes they get huge – mine is about 7′ right now, and oh so stately!

  4. Pingback: Bloom Day – July 2014 | Flutter & Hum

  5. Elvis says:

    How about that! I missed this post last year, but I’m delighted to know what my first big weed was. I love to see teasel, but I don’t think I need any more in my garden: Loree and Linda can have mine. Thank you, Anna!

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