Lots of burs lurk in the Midwest woods

Lynn Youngblood
The green space

While walking through the autumn woods or fields, I’m always cautious of the three creepers: stick tights, burrs and Spanish needles. 

Lynn Youngblood

These “boogers” can be so obnoxious that I do not want to bring along my furry little dog. They cling to every pant leg, sock, shirt, coat and even shoes. My poor dog gets them tangled in her beard, tail and every part of her body, making removal a harrowing and painful experience. 

What are these nuisance cling-ons, and where do they come from? They are seeds whose plants have evolved to facilitate clever ways to disperse themselves throughout the countryside. In our part of the country, stick tights, also known as beggar’s lice, come from the plant tick-trefoil (Desmodium spps). Many people refer to the plant as desmodium, as there are 17 species in Missouri alone. 

The plant gets its name, trefoil, due to its form of three leaflets, off of the center stem. Small pink, pea-like flowers bloom off of a long stem from the center of the plant. And then come the burrs. The one nice thing about these stick tights is that they are actually edible. If you open the outer covering much like a soft sunflower seed, the endoderm inside is edible and delicious. 

When it comes to burrs, there are a number of plants that can fill that order. Most of us may think of the small BB-shaped green burrs. These come from the Agrimony plant (Agrimonia spp.). The small barbs on the seed heads easily latch onto clothing, and are very annoying. 

Agrimony has a long history of medicinal uses. In ancient times, it was used for foot baths and tired feet. Through the ages it was considered a panacea. The ancient Greeks used agrimony to treat eye ailments, and it was made into brews for diarrhea and disorders of the gallbladder, liver and kidneys. 

With all of this said, there is nothing quite like the cocklebur. Once seen, you’ll never forget it. A cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium) is about the size of the last digit on your pinky finger with long, sharp spines whorled around the entire body of the bur. It is the king of burrs, at least in this part of the world. 

Finally, there are Spanish needles, also known as devil’s darning needles (Bidens bipinnatta). These are the long, thin, brown come-alongs with the prongs on one end. They attach to anything that brushes against them, including shoes and, annoyingly, shoelaces. Seed clusters release hundreds of needles at one time. 

As a counter-balance to all of these annoyances, the plant is known to have medicinal properties, as leaves, roots and seeds are used to remove parasitic worms, and as treatment for sore throats, ear drops, laryngeal and bronchial diseases. (Please consult a medical professional before ingesting any part of any wild plant.) 

If you love leisurely walks through the woods and fields and hate walking out of them covered in the three creepers – stick tights, burrs, and Spanish needles – then get out your butter knife and start scraping down your pant legs. It is most assuredly the easiest way to rid yourself of the boogers. Happy trails! 

Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.