Down on the farm

(Mostly about plants, but there are some points of linguistic interest.)

Yesterday, talk between Juan Gomez and me about weeds, prompted by my revisiting a wonderful gift from Steven Levine back in 2011 (posted about here on 7/6/11): Farm Weeds of Canada (2nd ed. 1923; 1st ed 1909), edited by George H. Clark, illustrations by Norman Criddle (Department of Agricuture, Dominion of Canada). More on the book and its excellent illustrations in a later posting; here the topic is two questions from Juan: What’s your favorite weed? What’s your least favorite weed?

Not easy questions, especially because each asks for just one plant, though a reasonable person might have several candidates. Then there’s the question of what counts as a weed; the Farm Weeds book isn’t just about plants growing where they’re not wanted (a common definion of weed), it’s about pest plants growing where they’re not wanted; any number of plants thrive as weeds in waste and disturbed places without giving grief — the little (scarlet) pimpernel, Anagallis, for instance (disussion in a 9/6/15 posting here) — and any number of lawn or garden escapes are in fact plants growing where they’re not wanted (escaped lawn grasses can easily become pests, in fact), but people don’t call them weeds (their ornamental function seems to take precedence). Finally, most weeds, even very invasive ones, have their good points: the common oxalis in these parts has lush green clover-like leaves and gorgeous yellow flowers, but it’s terribly invasive; poison ivy is dreadful, but its glossy leaves are handsome, and they turn bright red in the fall..

Having unloaded these reservations, I’ll still answer Juan’s questions: goldenrod good, dodder really really bad. With plates from Farm Weeds.

Digression: on the noun escape (NOAD2: ‘a garden plant or pet animal that has gone wild and (especially in plants) become naturalized’. The verb escape was nouned as referring to an act (NOAD2: ‘an act of breaking free from confinement or control’) in Middle English, but but other nounings are 19th century or later, and people who are annoyed by nounings tend to be annoyed by them; people who aren’t into plants sometimes gripe to me about the usage lawn or garden escapes, as if it were some piece of recent trendiness, an inexplicable invention when we already have the noun escapee.

The facts: OED2 has the noun escape referring to plants from 1870; to ‘escaped person, fugitive’ from 1881; and to a bird that has escaped from captivity from 1937. The noun escapee (first cite 1875-6) is of roughly the same vintage as the first two. There’s an understandable impulse here to innovate a noun meaning ‘X that has escaped’ in certain specific contexts. This impulse is not at all recent, and it’s been satisfied in more than one way.

But back to plants. First, a favorite weed of mine, goldenrod (“Golden yellow for the end of summer”, as the header on my 2015 posting went). From Farm Weeds, Plate 53:


(Note: goldenrod is often blamed from autumnal allergies, but it’s innocent. The culprit is the inconspicuous ragweed plants that grow along with the showy goldenrods; see my 2015 posting.)

Now for the villain, dodder. The very short story from NOAD2:

a widely distributed parasitic climbing plant of the morning glory family, with leafless threadlike stems that are attached to the host plant by means of suckers. [Genus Cuscuta, family Convolvulaceae.] ORIGIN Middle English: related to Middle Low German doder, dodder, Middle High German toter.


Yes, a vampire plant. (I had hoped that the MHG toter would corresoond to modern German tot ‘dead’, but apparently no dice.)

The longer version from Wikipedia, including the image of the plant creeping about in search of a host:

Cuscuta … (dodder) is a genus of about 100–170 species of yellow, orange, or red (rarely green) parasitic plants. … The genus is found throughout the temperate and tropical regions of the world, with the greatest species diversity in subtropical and tropical regions; the genus becomes rare in cool temperate climates, with only four species native to northern Europe.

Folk names include: strangle tare, scaldweed, beggarweed, lady’s laces, fireweed, wizard’s net, devil’s guts, devil’s hair, devil’s ringlet, goldthread, hailweed, hairweed, hellbine, love vine, pull-down, strangleweed, angel hair, and witch’s hair.

Dodder can be identified by its thin stems appearing leafless, with the leaves reduced to minute scales. … From mid-summer to early autumn, the vines can produce small fruit that take the same color as the vine, and are approximately the size of a common pea. It has very low levels of chlorophyll; some species such as Cuscuta reflexa can photosynthesize slightly, while others such as C. europaea are entirely dependent on the host plants for nutrition.

Dodder flowers range in color from white to pink to yellow to cream. Some flower in the early summer, others later, depending on the species. The seeds are minute and produced in large quantities. They have a hard coating, and typically can survive in the soil for 5–10 years, sometimes longer.

Dodder seeds sprout at or near the surface of the soil. Although dodder germination can occur without a host, it has to reach a green plant quickly and is adapted to grow towards the nearby plants by following chemosensory clues. If a plant is not reached within 5 to 10 days of germination, the dodder seedling will die. Before a host plant is reached, the dodder, as other plants, relies on food reserves in the embryo; the cotyledons, though present, are vestigial.

After a dodder attaches itself to a plant, it wraps itself around it. If the host contains food beneficial to dodder [species of dodder are tuned to particular plant species; the one in #2, shown here attacking red clover, goes for clover], the dodder produces haustoria that insert themselves into the vascular system of the host. The original root of the dodder in the soil then dies. The dodder can grow and attach itself to multiple plants. In tropical areas it can grow more or less continuously, and may reach high into the canopy of shrubs and trees; in temperate regions it is an annual plant and is restricted to relatively low vegetation that can be reached by new seedlings each spring.


One Response to “Down on the farm”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I keep forgetting about “escape”. I use the adjective “feral” for wild/weed plants descended from domesticated varieties, by analogy with the parallel situation for animals.

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