Thursday, March 10, 2011

The First Weeds of Spring

Winter still has it's grip on a lot of North America (a friend of mine from Utah says he shoveled a foot of snow out of his driveway this morning) but here in the Bay Area, winter is surrendering to spring, and the plants and weeds are starting to flourish.  

One of the first weeds of spring is this guy, called the 'old-man-in-the-spring', or 'common groundsel'.  It is sprouting up everywhere around here.  I think one of the reasons it thrives is because it is so unobtrusive and people hardly notice it and don't try to eradicate it.  It does not have burrs or stickers. It has no thorns.  It is a skinny plant that grows to less than a foot high, with meek yellow flower buds that don't seem to open up until they suddenly burst open into a dandelion-like puff of parachute seeds.

The Latin name of the plant, Senecio vulgaris, means 'vulgar old man' but in this case, 'vulgar' means 'common' as it it did in Old English.  It is said that that the seeds look like the gray hair of an old man, and when they blow away, the stem looks like a bald head.  

It seems that it is not native to this area, but nobody knows how or when it was introduced, or where it originated. It thrives in almost all countries around the world and has been known since ancient times.

Pliny the elder of ancient Rome wrote that groundsel can be used to treat a toothache.  According to the 1986 Reader's Digest book,  "Magic and Medicine of Plants", Pliny wrote:
"If a line is traced around it with an iron tool before it is dug up, and if one touches a painful tooth with the plant three times, spitting after each touch, and replaces it into the ground so as to keep it alive, it is said that the tooth will never cause pain thereafter."
I think he said something about selling a bridge in the next paragraph.

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