Keys Homes
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Butterflies will tell you the Spanish needle is more than a weed

By robin robinson Key West Garden Club

Spanish needle (Bidens alba), the native white wildflower, has had its character maligned and its charm undeservedly disparaged.

The perky flower's tender shoots can grace a salad much like dandelion greens. Every 110 grams of greens contain 2.8 grams of protein, 111 milligrams of calcium and 2.3 grams of iron. This is quite a wallop in very few calories.

When the leaves first emerge, they are simple on a long stalk and have a depressed midvein. As they age, the leaves become compound with three to nine saw-toothed, oval leaflets. Leaves can be as long as 5 inches and as wide as 2¬½ inches. They are bright green on top and hairy on the underside. As they grow longer, they will touch the ground and root from a node on the stem.

The white flowers taste tangy on the tongue. Crush the flower and place it on a minor abrasion or insect bite and it will take away the sting or swelling.

The flowers have five petals of different sizes. They do not grow uniformly around the center but leave cockeyed spaces between each of them. This enhances the unique visual charm.

This member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) does resemble a daisy with its white, petaled flower and cheery, yellow center. The white, sterile ray florets surround the yellow, fertile disk. Each disk produces copious amounts of nectar that attracts native butterflies.

Proponents claim that its medicinal properties are better than saw palmetto for shrinking the prostate gland.

The plant also is called beggarticks, shepherd's needles or butterfly needles. It blooms year-round all over the Keys in vacant yards and roadsides. When this short-lived perennial dies, it leaves an ugly, dark carcass.

On the other hand, being found virtually everywhere, it has been called the worst weed in the world. Here's why:

In order to reproduce, this charmer produces a round puffball that reminds me of fireworks. It has tiny achenes, or dry seeds. The name Bidens describes this fruit -- "Bi," for the two hooks on each end of the seed, and "dens," meaning toothlike. Alba refers to its white petals.

These break off and attach to the fur of cats and dogs or the trousers or socks of humans, hitchhiking to new pastures. They can explode into a wind that sails them across the land. They are extra annoying to remove.

This plant can produce as many as 6,000 seeds per plant, and they are fertile for up to five years. It will thrive, flower and re-seed whether the gardener likes it or not. This insistent world traveler is found everywhere.

Getting rid of it and its siblings in a garden is a long-term job. When the gardener tries to pull them, the brittle stems snap at the root line. New leaves arrive in a few days. Thus, the love/hate relationship of the gardener with Bidens alba is destined to continue.

The butterfly lover is not torn between the good and the bad when it comes to this perky plant. Eleven different species of butterfly adore Spanish needle and more than 37 different butterflies use its nectar.

The dainty sulphur (Nathalis iole) uses its leaves as a larval host. It is a nectar plant for the amethyst hairstreak, barred yellow, Bartram's scrub-hairstreak, cassius blue, ceraunus blue, clouded skipper, dorantes skipper, eastern pygmy-blue, Florida white, fulvous hairstreak, eufala skipper, field skipper, Florida duskywing, great southern white, Gulf fritillary, Julia, little yellow, hammock skipper, large orange sulphur, long-tailed skipper, mangrove skipper, martial scrub-hairstreak, Miami blue, monk, Palatka skipper, red-banded hairstreak, silver-banded hairstreak, Southern broken-dash, three-spotted skipper, tropical checkered-skipper, twin-spot skipper, zarucco duskywing, zestos skipper, white peacock and others.

This long list of butterflies that find the jaunty Spanish needle useful outweighs the "weed" category designated by many gardeners. If you pull it out as a weed, remember that it also is nectar for the butterflies and greens for a salad.

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays.

Master gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated by Princeton Features. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club, A compilation of her columns, "Plants of Paradise," is available at the Garden Club.

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