Roadside Beauties

The roadside beauty in Chenango County is upon us.  What a pleasure to drive the highways and byways and glory in the daylily, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace and teasel in bloom, to name a few. They are all non-native wildflowers and many consider them noxious weeds. They can be invasive and choke out native plants. They can be harmful in fields that are harvested; Queen Anne’s Lace is mildly toxic to horses and cows. They all came from Europe purposely or by chance. Seeds came in on clothing and shoes or on the keels of the ships. But there is no denying their beauty and it’s too late to close the door on these aliens.  They have naturalized, are part of our landscape and each has its own history.

            The common orange daylily is ubiquitous. If you go for a hike in the woods and you see a clump of daylilies, you know that someone lived nearby.  Look for a foundation or a well. If you go on the hikes sponsored by the Chenango County Land Trust , you’ll find many such sites. The daylily was imported from Europe in the 19th century as an ornamental and escaped into the wilds like all the other plants mentioned.  Its young roots can be eaten raw and its buds can be steamed, pickled or immersed in beaten egg, milk and flour and fried.  When it’s steamed, to me it tastes like asparagus.

            Chicory has the vivid blue flower that lasts only until noon.  It also was introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century.  The roots are dried, roasted and prepared as a coffee substitute or a coffee blend.  New Orleans coffee is noted for its addition of chicory.  Some varieties of chicory are used for greens; radicchio is one with its slightly bitter dandelion-like taste.

            Queen Anne’s lace is a wild carrot and the vegetable carrot was bred from this plant. The wild carrot’s young root is edible also. Women have taken the seeds harvested in the fall as a contraceptive since the time of Hippocrates. One woman described the taste as a combination of Vicks’ Vapo Rub and castor oil.  The flower is lacy white and there are many stories on why it’s called Queen Anne’s lace. One is that the tiny reddish floret in the center of the flower is a drop of blood from the Queen’s finger as she is making lace.  The English often call it Bird’s Nest because when the flower turns to seed, it contracts and becomes concave like a bird’s nest. There are many cautions about not confusing this with poison hemlock that is extremely toxic. They look very similar.

            Teasel is a remarkable plant. It can grow to seven feet tall and every part of it is prickly.  You can’t take hold of it anywhere without being pricked.  Even the leaves have fine hairs that penetrate the skin.  It has a strange way of blooming beginning with a band of bluish flowers in the middle of the flower head and then proceeds to bloom each way.  The honey made from the flowers is said to have a very fine flavor.

            The common teasel was used in Europe for carding wool and raising a nap on woolens. From this comes the name of teasel. It’s the same principle as teasing one’s hair. It was introduced here for the same reason and was an important industry in Central New York State, especially around Skaneateles for over 100 years.  In 1833, the first imported teasel seeds from England were planted in Skaneateles, harvested and sold to woolen mills worldwide. Only Oregon had as large a crop of teasel as Skaneateles. The dried flower heads were drawn across the woolen fabric by hand or the heads, split in two, were mounted on a teasel frame or rollers that moved across the cloth. The industry began to decline as foreign wool was imported and domestic mills had to stay competitive by finding a cheaper way to raise the nap without teasels. Also, there was an increase in synthetic materials and the teasel industry ended in 1960 in Skaneateles.

            There are other ways teasel is used also.  On the internet there are several sites that sell toys made out of teasel, especially little animals such as teasel mice. It is used in dried flower arrangements and makes a striking appearance. But this is one of the ways that teasel escaped into the wilds; it was thrown into refuse dumped by greenhouses that sold it for the stalks and flower heads.  A single teasel plant can produce around 3,000 seeds.

            Enjoy the beauty of the wildflowers but also educate yourself on the possible downside of digging them up and transplanting them elsewhere or the possible negative consequences of importing other non-native plants.