Eat the Weeds Newsletter 16 February 2016
by Green Deane
The Common Sow Thistle is one of the mildest of wild greens. Photo by Green Deane
Blossoming Sow Thistles signal we are mid-season in their annual cycle. Locally we have three Sow Thistles, Common, Spiny, and Field though the latter is found a few hundred miles north of here. Unlike true thistles Sow Thistles look more threatening than they really are. In fact the Common Sow Thistle rarely gets prickles hard enough to be called said. The Spiny Sow Thistle does but still they do not draw blood like the prickles on true thistles.
The Spiny Sow Thistle looks more armed. Photo by Green Deane
Sow Thistles are a very mild “bitter” green. They are slightly bitter when raw. Blanching or a little boiling eliminates that bitterness from all but the oldest of specimens. Sow Thistles are among the most common, easy to recognize, and tasty of greens. Of course they are showing up here in the middle of our mild winter whereas in northern climes they are a spring to early summer genus. To read more about Sow thistles, go here.
Every forager has serious hang-ups so we might as well discuss them: Thorns, spines and prickles.
Wintertime can present a foraging challenge to those who live in colder climates. I have written about that as I did grow up in Maine. You can read that article here. Wintertime, even in warmer areas, can also be a good time to look at some plants more closely than other times of the year. One example is the ability to see thorns, spines and prickles more clearly.
While their function can be similar this trio of sharpies have different characteristics and grow on different parts of the plant. This doesn’t mean much when one is in your thumb or starts your ankle bleeding but it can help one to understand some plants better. The main function of these sharp interruptions is to persuade those who eat greenery to dine elsewhere. But they can have secondary functions as well.
Thorns are always associated with a leaf.
Thorns are modified stems, often strong and formidable, and are connected to the plant’s vascular system usually from deeply seated tissue. They are almost always accompanied by a leaf. Think thorn-leaf. One genus that come to mind is the Hawthorn. Literally across the dirt road where I grew up there was a Hawthorn with two-inch thorns. It was a favorite nesting place for birds because the thorns kept most predatory or egg-stealing mammals at bay. I don’t know about snakes but in cold New England snakes weren’t a common problem. As modified stems (read branches) thorns can and often do have leaves. They can also branch. Other species with true thorns include Firethorn (Pyracantha) and Japanese flowering quince.
Some toxic Nightshades are well-armed with spines.
Unlike thorns spines are modified leaves or modified stipules which are leaves that really never got out of puberty. They are also attached to the plant’s vascular system, usually external tissue, and are located right below the leaf scar. Acacia and Locus are well-known for spines. Here in Florida the Water Locust is well-armed. Climbing the tree is simply out of the question. One species, Gleditsia triacanthos, can have spines more than a foot long. That’s protection. Do know that some botanists say the Locust have thorns not spines. Not all is settle science in Botanyland.
Cactus spines are actually leaves.
Cactus also have “spines” but they are quite distinct. In the cactus the spine is actually the leaf itself. What it is growing out of is actually a branch. So on a cactus “pad” the spines are actually leaves. Tiny ones called “glochids” and are particularly irksome. Cactus spines can also be barbed so to work their way into an offended finger or mouth. And while one does not often think of said spines can also provide some shade for the plant. Don’t forget that common names can be wrong. The Euphorbia called “Crown of Thorns” should be called Crown of Spines.
If that was not confusing enough, some plants with spines — modified leaves — have those modifications on stiff leaves. The American and English hollies are good examples as the the Oregon Grape Holly. Before modern brushes folks would tie English or American Holly branches into a bundle and drag the bundle up and down their chimneys to clean them. Two other common species with spines on their leaf margins are Pineapples and Agaves.
Roses have prickles, not thorns.
Many plants that are thought to have thorns or spines actually have prickles. It rather destroys an old saying that “every rose has a thorn.” Prickles are more along the line of plant hairs on steroids and can be found anywhere on the plant.
Where thorns (stems) and spines (leaves) have definite locations prickles are here and there and arise from surface material thus they can break off easily, or more easily than thorns or some spines. Besides the rose the related shrubs Hercules Club and Prickly Ash have prickles. The latter is a tree that was actually named correctly. Perhaps the best armed tree in North America is the Silkfloss Tree. It is bristling with prickles up to two inches long.
Natal Plums have double sets of thorns.
Prickles are often said to help a plant climb, as in a blackberry. And interestingly thorns are also said to up plants climb. Spines are not. As one might expect humans have been encountering these pointy problems for a long time but also using them. They have been employed as needles, pins, and fish hooks. Armed plants have also been used for protection against wild animals and protection for domestic animals and crops. Locally the Natal Plum, which produces an edible fruit, is often planted outside windows. It’s double sets of thorns makes burglars think twice. But I also would think twice about jumping out a window if I had to land on a Natal Plum. When kept short armed plants can be protective or, one can grow them tall and cut off lower offended branches. Knowing the difference between thorns, spines and prickles won’t take the pain away but it can help make the plant identification easier.