Freaky Flower of the Week: Woolly Mullein

As you can see, fields near my house are done with wheat harvest.

This is yet another flower that grows so prolifically on the roadsides, and looks so bizarre, that I was certain it would turn out to be native to the Intermountain West. Will I never learn?

The tall, coarse stalks of woody mullein stand as sentinels along the roadsides. They are biennial plants, growing the first year as a round cluster of large (12 x 4″) radiating basal leaves covered with thick, woolly hair. The second year, they rapidly grow a 1 – 6′ (!) tall stalk, crowded with yellow flowers in a spike arrangement. Then, with all its energy expended, the plant dies.

This introduced (!) weed colonizes disturbed places from the valleys and plains to the montane forests.

Dioscorides, the Greek physician to the Roman armies in the first century, used mullein to treat coughs, scorpion stings, eye problems, tonsillitis, and toothache. Today, herbalists value it as a medicinal herb for asthma, bronchitis, coughs, throat inflammation, earache, and various other respiratory complaints.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers by H. Wayne Phillips, page 157

Weed of the Week

(Sounds better than Wildflower of the Week, don’t you think?)

This … is Rubber Rabbitbrush. Or, as I like to call it, “False Yellow Sage.” Or maybe, “Not Actually Yellow Sage, Dummy.” (I am getting the hang of this botany thing. You can just make up any descriptive name, pretty much.)

When I first started noticing this species, I naturally assumed it was some yellow-flowered variety of sagebrush. Reason: it is the same general size, shape, and even color as Silver Sagebrush, and it grows everywhere that Silver Sagebrush does.

Observe:

Here it is growing happily interspersed with Silver Sagebrush, overlooking the spectacular views of Baker, Oregon. But it doesn’t only do this in Baker. It does it in Idaho as well. I see it doing this sneaky little trick everywhere.

Assuming, as I did, that this was some kind of sagebrush, I was completely stymied when I could find it nowhere in my trusty Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guide, by the illustrious H. Wayne Phillips. Not under Sage or Yellow Sage. Not even in the “yellow flowers” section (the guide is arranged by color). There was no way, I thought, that it wasn’t native to the area. Look at how deserty it looks!

Anyway. long story short, it’s Rabbitbrush. And here is a partial excuse for why I couldn’t identify it until after my trip to Baker. The photograph in the guide shows the leaves looking very grey, as in the first picture above. But most of the Rabbitbrushes that grow around my house look much more green. I had to go to the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker and see, growing around it, an awful lot of different individuals of these plants, in all stages of growth, before I could understand what I was looking at.

For example, here it is when very young.

By the time it is dying, it just looks like hairy brown sticks with dry yellow puffballs on top.

The guidebook says,

Ericameria nauseosa, Aster family. Previously known as Chrysothamnus nauseous. Nauseosus implies that the plant produces sickness or nausea. Jackrabbits often hide under the cover of rabbitbrush to conceal themselves from the watchful eyes of golden eagles soaring overhead. The Shoshone people of Nevada use the plant to stop diarrhea and as a remedy for coughs and colds. The Cheyenne used it to relieve itching and treat smallpox.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, p. 107

Yellow Salsify

On my walks along the country lanes of Idaho, this wildflower is one of the most handsome and prominent. As you can see, it looks like a giant dandelion but with a more sculpted-looking stem. During the morning, the striking yellow flowers open and face the sun. Later in the day they close up into those very pointy-looking buds again. Eventually, they turn into large puffballs, like a dandelion but about three times as big.

Here is some growing in front of Silver Sage, which was our last featured wildflower.

Naturally I assumed these things must be native to the Intermountain West. They seem so at home here. But I could find them nowhere in my Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guidebook. So, after Googling things like “yellow chicory images” and “looks like a giant dandelion images,” I at last discovered … it’s Yellow Salsify. Native to Eastern Europe, according to one web site. Yet another distinctive “Idaho” wildflower that is actually introduced! But look at how well it is getting on with that silver sage!

By the way, when I Googled “salsify” just now, I discovered that there is a purple variety and that the taproot is edible. This somewhat ameliorates my disappointment at finding out that it’s not a yellow variety of chicory as I had first hoped, and that there are, in fact, no yellow varieties of chicory. So, if you are into foraging, send me your salsify recipes!

Let’s Be A Little More Creative with Our Theories

Louisiana woman planted mysterious seeds before she heard the warning not to

All across the nation, people have been receiving unsolicited packets of seeds in the mail. Some people, like this woman, planted them because she had previously ordered seeds and didn’t realize this wasn’t her order.

The seeds are often shipped from China. Theories are that they could be a marketing ploy or an attempt to sabotage U.S. plants by sending invasive exotics.

Invasive exotic plants, that is.

I have a different theory.

The reason you should never plant unsolicited seeds, nor ever put them in water, is that they might contain … pod people. Obviously.

I think we all need to brush up on our science fiction.

Silver Sagebrush

Our Idaho Wildflower of the Week.

Here is a piece of silver sagebrush growing out of the midst of a juniper bush. You can see more of them in the background.

Here is what they look like in the aggregate. As you can see, we have the classic dusty road, barb-wire fence, and a behind it a meadow of sage stretching off into a vivid blue sky. This little stretch of sage and lava rock is a short walk from my house. Around it are cultivated fields.

We have a number of silvery plants here in Idaho. Besides silver sage, which grows everywhere, and our old friend Lamb’s Quarter, wherever there is water we have Russian olive trees. They are almost exactly the same silvery-sagey-grey color. Both plants give off a pleasant smell. The sage brush smells spicy and resiny, and the Russian olives have an extraordinarily fresh smell that is almost like a drink of water as it wafts towards you on a hot day. Between the two of them, this place smells terrific any time there is enough moisture in the air to carry the scents to us on the wind.

Silver Sage is not the only kind of sagebrush, far from it. According to the guidebook Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers,

Silver sagebrush is well adapted to the wildfires that have swept its habitat for thousands of years. When burned to the ground it simply resprouts from surviving buds on horizontal stems below the soil surface. In contrast, big sagebrush is more often killed by fire, relying on seed to recolonize the burned area. Silver sagebrush was first described to botanical science by Frederick Pursh in 1814, from an October 1804 collection made by Meriwether Lewis near the mouth of the Cheyenne River, in present-day South Dakota.

page 192

Idaho Wildflowers

It became necessary to buy this book last week.

The fam and I went on a hike. A steep hike. The mountainside looked barren from the valley below, but when we were in among it, we were passing through thickets of trees and meadows (near vertical meadows, mind you) of tall grasses. And wildflowers. So many wildflowers.

This is the only wildflower picture that actually came from that hike. Obviously some kind of thistle, though it does not appear in the guidebook.

Every one of them was very distinctive looking, as if a person who knew what they were about would be able to identify them at a glance. I realized it was a disgrace that I didn’t know any of their names. (OK, Indian Paintbrush, but that was it!)

Black Sheep (who has apparently dropped off the Internet!) was aiming to have a Big Year with bird watching. I am not up to that, but perhaps I can start watching wildflowers. At least they hold still!

Having bought and looked through the book, I now know at the very least that I saw Lupine. The others have fled my memory. But here are a few found around our house, with my best shots at identifying them.

Wavy-Leaved Thistle. Much easier to find, but less spectacular, than the (thistle?) above.

Volunteer Yellow Columbine growing right in my flowerbed.

Showy Milkweed.

The things with yellow flowers are Leafy Spurge.

“This introduced noxious weed grows in disturbed soils along roadsides and fields. It is vigorously colonial, spreading laterally and forming dense communities, often excluding other plants. Twelve native species of spurges occur in the Pacific Northwest. Leafy spurges and other Euphorbias are known to be poisonous. Cattle and horses seem to be affected by the toxic properties of spurge more than sheep, which readily eat leafy spurge.” (page 133)

The hanging-down ones are Wild Lily of the Valley.

“This common native wildflower was named for its resemblance to the introduced garden lily of the valley flower … The garden plants have dangerously poisonous compounds that are purgative and have a digitalis-like effect on the heart … The native wild lily-of-the-valley has edible berries, although they are not very tasty, and eating too many will unleash their laxative properties. It is sometimes called starry Solomon’s seal.” (page 219)

And, climbing on a juniper tree, Climbing Nightshade.

“Climbing nightshade is an introduced vine [in the Rockies] … The plants scramble over shrubs and other vegetation for support, sometimes robbing them of the light needed to survive. Solanum is one of the larger genera worldwide, but it is concentrated in tropical and subtropical America. It includes the common potato (!). Many species of Solanum contain poisonous alkaloids, and grazing of climbing nightshade foliage has caused livestock deaths. … The bright red berries of climbing nightshade are very attractive and tempting, but they are poisonous and should not be eaten.” (page 62)

This instance of climbing nightshade is on our neighbor’s juniper, but we also have it in our raspberry patch!

And, finally, an old friend …

Lamb’s Quarter. This isn’t in the guidebook, as far as I can tell, but I include it because is is one of my favorite weeds. Yes, it used to be my job to classify weeds for agriculture scientists and I always kind of liked Lamb’s Quarter because the silvery power hidden in the top of it was something I found romantic. I would imagine a group of adventurers (very tiny ones, of course) climbing to the top of one of these things and being surprised by what they found there.

Happy Summer, everybody!

What’s your favorite weed?