Thursday, March 5, 2015

And Yet More Winter!

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market. We’ve got a good episode in store covering a topic that becomes more critical in winter months than others so sit tight today we will be talking about weeds. Before I get into that I do have to post a word to the wise for all you gardeners out there, the weather has made cabin fever a little worse this year than in others and so those shiny seed catalogs keep showing up.  The issue with this is that a gardener is highly tempted to buy more than he or she can realistically handle or buy things above your skill level. It’s always wise to show some restraint when dealing with ordering things from the catalogs because you may not know how they actually perform in your area or there may be cultivation tips for growing that you are currently unaware of.  For instance, growing milkweed or say lupines is far harder then you realize and without a good reference or someone to consult who’s done it before you may suffer a lot of avoidable disappointment. I bring this point up because winter is coming to its end even if it is tossing storms as though it were having a tantrum.  Needless to say there are three things you should ask yourself before ordering anything from a seed catalog.

1.      Have I grown this before?
If your answer is no; be careful - seed packets and their catalog listings might not tell you the special growing instructions for some species.

2.      Do I know how well this handles my local climate?
This can help you avoid invasive species, even mint can become invasive in the right spot.

3.      Will it need special care?
Orchids look wonderful, but can be difficult if you don’t know what to do. Some seed requires scarification, stratification, acid treatments or may take up to two years to germinate.

There is one other point to be made here, the garden catalog’s exist to sell you things, so they tell you just enough to get you started but not enough to really educate you in what you are getting into. So be careful before you order and try to start with a set budget before you start compiling a seed list and in theory you should be able to keep that winter garden mania under control.

So with the forst bit covered let’s talk about today’s main topic. If you’re a regular reader you know that I define weeds optimistically as the following.

“Any plant whose chief virtue has not yet been noticed.”

That may annoy some of you ‘lawn care professionals’ out there and the herbicide industry but no one cares what you think anyway. The fact is that weeds can be beneficial in a number of horticultural roles such as telling us things about the soil conditions, or the amount of sun or lack thereof that an area receives. Some indicate how high the water table is or where water often pools others indicate how long ago the native environment was disturbed by construction or human activity in general. Others still provide food sources that often go ignored because we don’t recognize them as such. Today’s such plant calls in that latter grouping. Today I am talking about Rattlesnake Weed.

Florida Betony/ Rattlesnake Weed - Stachys floridana
The above picture shows a cultivated specimen of this species. In the garden rattlesnake weed is considered a weed because it is a cool season perennial that spreads rapidly during a time period in which most cultivated plants are winding down. This spread gives the appearance of it being invasive when in fact it is a native species. It is thought that Rattlesnake Weed was contained to Florida up until the 1940’s to 1950’s when it got outside of the borders of Florida most likely though nursery plant stock.

A close up of the leaves, notice the similarity to the herb Betony?
What makes Rattlesnake weed interesting is that it reproduces through its tuberous root stock; this is asexual reproduction so it can spread without a pollinator which allows it to colonize large areas. It responds to even the faintest traces of fertilizer and can handle all but the wettest of soils with ease. The plant gets its name from the shape of its tubers which resemble the tails of rattlesnakes. The tubers are often white with some tinges of green where they were exposed to sunlight and tend to be about ½” wide and on average 1-4” long, some specimens have been recorded as growing up to 8” long. New tubers are formed in late spring as the soil temperatures rise. Rattlesnake Weed typically goes dormant or semi-dormant for the hottest summer months. It will tolerate full sun if ample moisture is present but seems to prefer partial shade. Although I have not personally witnessed it all references to this plant indicate that it has trumpet shaped flowers that may be white or pink and may have purple spots, it’s suggested that blooming occurs in late spring. There is no information on what the germination requirements are for seed from Rattlesnake Weed.

With all that said here is why it is interesting, Rattlesnake Weed is in the Stachys family which means it is related to Lamb’s Ear Stachys Byzantina, Betony Stachys Officinalis, Chinese Artichoke Stachys affinis and, Hedge Nettle Stachys sylvatica. All members of the family are called woundwort because some aspect of their bio-chemical composition aids in the healing of wounds. When they do bloom members of this family are very attractive to bumblebees and honey bees so they serve as a nectar source. I might add that all Stachys are in the Lamiaciae family group making them relatives to mint which explains rattlesnake weed’s habits. Ironically it also makes lamb’s ear the most un-mint of the group, apparently the “square” in a family or wild and crazy herbs.

Now why eat rattlesnake weed? Well the tubers contain a sweetening compound called Stachylos which is not completely digestible which may have some benefit to diabetics. It is also suggested, though I cannot absolutely verify it, that the special sugar compound in rattlesnake weed promotes friendly gut microbes and inhibits the growth of certain types of infection. For food purposes the leaves can supposedly be used in place of tobacco for antioxidant purposes. The tubers can be eaten raw albeit sliced thin in salads and are said to have the texture of radish, with a sort of cauliflower-jicama flavor. It’s referenced in several texts that the roots can be used to supplement potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, or fried to a crispy texture in a stir fry with onions.

Personally as you see I have a lab specimen I’m cultivating, I found it makes an interesting house plant. Rattlesnake weed is seemingly pest free, vigorous as any aggressive philodendron and as long as I keep it in its own pot with a big saucer beneath and it’s well-behaved. Not bad for a ‘weed’ really, it’s one of the few things where I could see palpable growth on a weekly basis. Who knows it may have a future as a pollution-proofed food source or something. Either way considering the rangy looking plant corn came from; with cultivation perhaps betony will put potatoes out of business in the future too.

That covers our topic for this week, next week we’ll be talking about another weed you can eat that is incredibly common this time of year in your yard. Check back with us next week and if you have any questions about the content you can visit us at the Fayetteville City Market this at 325 Franklin Street this Saturday between the hours of 9:00 AM to 1:00PM.

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