We adore the wildflowers that pop up along the Potomac in early spring―so pretty, so shy, so delicate. Now it’s late summer, and a completely different gang has moved into the neighborhood.
These are the tough guys of the plant world. Some are real bruisers, forming thickets 10 feet tall that make the going tough, even with a machete. Others are aggressive, stinging exposed skin or sending forth clouds of nasty pollen. At least one can even kill you.
Each has its story. I learned some of these stories on a recent hike along the from Carderock.
The trail begins in the shadowy coolness of the forest. I crossed a footbridge over a rocky stream, and walked along the shoreline. It’s a pretty stretch of the river, particularly the Stubblefield Falls rapids, lined with sycamore trees -- trunks so massive they could shelter whole families of hibernating bears.
Not for the stewpot
At the head of a shadowy lagoon, I turned down a faint side trail that took me to on a rocky peninsula.
I came here mainly for the Rose-mallows, big, thick-stemmed plants clustered around a pool of stagnant water. Their showy pink flowers resemble the hibiscus, a close relation.
Another relative is the Marshmallow, whose sticky root pith was used to make sweets as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Still another is the okra, which bears strikingly similar flowers and fruits.
Further on, I found a little pond of rain water, and at its side, a plant with a lily-like flower, tightly curled. It was the Jimsonweed, a member of the deadly nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and even tobacco.
A plant of mystical significance, Jimsonweed reputedly cures asthma, and at a slightly higher dosage induces hallucinations, or even death. A few years ago in suburban Maryland, a stew flavored with Jimsonweed sent six laughing, hallucinating people to the hospital. One of them was 80 years old. All survived.
Then, growing from a crack in the rock ledge, I found a Late-flowering Thoroughwort (“thorough” as in thoroughly reducing fever), covered with tiny butterflies. Next I admired Swamp Smartweed’s spikes of red flowers. The knobby joints on its stems gave it away as a member of the buckwheat family.
Exploring jungle of weeds
Back on the path I smelled something pungent and sweet. I checked the leaf litter under a large paw-paw tree and found a fruit, green on the outside and creamy yellow where a set of tiny teeth had gnawed through the skin.
I shook the tree, and another fruit bounced on the ground. I broke it open and took a bite. It was like a mixture of every tropical fruit I have ever tasted. How odd, I thought, that the paw-paw has not entered the commercial mainstream, although some are trying.
Now I reached the sunny clearing that would be the end of my hike. Gone was the cool shade. Even gone were the nettles and their painful sting. I was now in a jungle of . . . weeds!
The star attraction was a stand of big, gangly plants tipped with what looked like small sunflowers. This was the Large-flowered Leafcup, considered by some to stimulate hair growth. Maybe someday I’ll try it. For the moment, I was happy just to watch the butterflies over my head, sipping nectar out of the yellow flowers.
Another giant was the Mugwort, its feathery fronds swaying in the breeze. The plant was once used to flavor beer―as in “mug” of beer. It was introduced to America from Eurasia along with claims that it could cure a long and eclectic list of ailments.
No doubt that it’s powerful stuff. I crushed a leaf in my hand, releasing a pungent smell of the closely related ragweed. In a few weeks its pollen will be causing misery to millions of hay fever sufferers.
Not a nice plant. But as with many of these late summer tough guys, it has another, softer side. For example, traditional Germans use Mugwort to flavor the Christmas goose.