Margaret Lauterbach

Some non-native weeds flourish in Idaho

Dried teasel is useful in removing balled yarn from sweaters.
Dried teasel is useful in removing balled yarn from sweaters.

Many of the wild plants or weeds that grow in our area are not native to our area, carried here accidentally in animal fur or packing materials. Some useful “weeds” were brought west by the great continental migration along the Oregon and California trails. They still grow here, reminding us of that trek.

One useful introduction is teasel, a tall thistle-like plant that grows in sloughs such as that on the south side of Victory Road west of Cole Road or any similar boggy place. Dried teasel seedheads are attractive in bouquets, and useful in removing balled yarn from sweaters, for instance. Domestic teasel is known as “fuller’s teasel.” A “fuller” is a person who fulls, removing impurities and thickening the cloth (raising the nap, especially of wool), a task our forebears and some clothing manufacturers did using teasel seedheads.

It was bred and re-bred, selecting for strength of the spines of the seed head, and used in major fabrication centers such as Balbriggan, Ireland, where the seedheads were preferred for use over steel combs on soft fine wool for human garments, according to my friend, Kathryn Marsh in Ireland. Some Indian tailors who make expensive clothing use cashmere refined by an Irish mill, the last one in the world apparently, and use teasel for that purpose.

The plant lately is in use by some herbalists as a remedy and prevention for Lyme disease, as well as to relieve aching joints and strengthen legs. The part used is the long taproot of first-year plants. The plant is usually biennial, the first year growing a thick rosette of spiny leaves, the second year sending a flower stalk 2 to 6 feet into the air. The flower is lavender in color, cone-shaped just like the seedhead will be, a bee magnet in bloom, and an attractor of goldfinches when its in seed, according to Marsh. In some cases, when poorly situated, the plant may live beyond its second year, then it dies after flowering. It’s not at all good for domestic animals.

Another biennial introduced by settlers that grows wild in our area is common mullein. Wildlife doesn’t eat it because of the fuzziness of the leaves. It too starts life as a thick rosette of leaves, sending up a flower stalk its second year, to a height of 3 to 5 feet, but it grows almost anywhere that is not boggy. Leaves and stalk are pale green, flowers are yellow, in a candlelike spire. This is a plant often distorted by fasciation, stalks flattening and growing broader than normal, or leaf shapes being distorted. Fasciation may be caused by mutation, virus, bacterial infection by bacterium known as Rhodococcus fascians, or injury to the meristem or growing part of the plant by insect, animal or human. Unless it’s a mutation, it doesn’t affect progeny or recur a second year.

Plants especially susceptible to fasciation include ferns, willow trees, delphiniums, foxgloves, forsythia, euphorbias, lilies, primulas and verbascums such as the mullein. Leaves of first-year mullein plants are used medicinally, according to the new “Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants.” They are made into tea or tinctures, benefitting the lungs and lymph nodes, as well as alleviating joint problems. Flowers and roots are also used, and native Americans used ground mullein seeds to poison fish. The dried stem is also useful in the friction form of firestarting, and the seedstalk has been used for a torch.

Common names include “cowboy toilet paper,” “beggar’s blanket,” “velvet mullein” or “feltwort.”

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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