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Plant Facts: From the Fountain of Useless Information

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Plant facts, Flowering Dogwood, Milkweed, Cattails, Thistles, Samaras, Ferns, Cindy Murphy,

A photo of Cindy MurphyThroughout years of gardening, I have gathered a lot of information about plants.  Much of it is stored in my head, gathering dust because it has no practical application.  Though I think it’s interesting information, it doesn’t help me in my job at the nursery, or make me a better gardener.  It’s, quite frankly, useless information.         

I am convinced that this useless information is hogging valuable brain space that could better be used for important things like phone numbers or where I left my car keys.  All I need to do is set it loose, and instantly my mind will be uncluttered, thus making me a less chaotic and more organized person.  So let me free up some space in my head by passing along to you a small sampling of what’s stuck up there.  You, in turn, can use it to amaze your family, friends, and neighbors….or in the least make them wonder if you’ve stayed out in the sun too long.  Here we go with eleven things you may not know about plants….

1.  The white or pink flowers of dogwood aren’t really flowers at all; they’re called “bracts,” which are modified leaves.  The actual dogwood flower is the knobby green ball in the center.

Kousa dogwood flowers and bracts 

2.  The silk from milkweed pods has had many uses over the years.  It’s been spun into candle wicks, netting, and fringes, and used as stuffing for pillows and mattresses.  The silk is warmer then wool and 6 times lighter, along with being 5 times more buoyant than cork.  During World War II, people collected milkweed pods from the wild, and shipped the dried pods to collection stations all over the country.  Large operation milkweed farms sprung up across the nation, as the weed suddenly became valuable.  The reason?  It was discovered just a few pounds of the fluff stuffed into life jackets could support a 150 pound man, and aviator suits lined with the floss were warm and buoyant, keeping downed pilots afloat until they could be rescued.

3.  Another common plant with a multitude of uses is one naturalist and stalker of the wild asparagus, Euell Gibbons, called the “supermarket of the swamp”:  cattails.  Cattail leaves have been woven into mats and baskets.  The woolly inflorescences were once used as fillings for quilts, pillows, mattresses, upholstery, baseballs, and life-jackets.  And if that’s not enough, all parts of the plant are edible.  Young sprouts are used as salad or cooked greens; the green, unripe bloom is cooked and eaten like corn on the cob; root stocks are ground into flour, and cattail pollen is a nutritious additive to meals, but reported to be especially tasty in pancake batter.  Good to know if you visit your local box store and find the shelves empty.  Just head on down to your local swamp instead.

4.  Fresh pine needles are rich in vitamins A and C; particularly medicinal are Scotch and white pine.  A cup of strong pine-needle tea has approximately 5 times more vitamin C than a lemon.  Native Americans and early settlers knew of pine needles’ benefits long before scientific research confirmed it.  They drank the tea several times a day to remedy coughs, colds, and to prevent scurvy. 

White Pine 

5.  As much as we take pleasure from it, the fragrance of flowers only has one purpose: to attract insects needed for pollination.  Flowers pollinated by wind don’t need to attract insects, and therefore, have no scent.

6.  The amount of oxygen released by the trees and grass planted along all the U.S. Interstate highways is enough to support 22 million people. 

7.  The national flower of Scotland is the thistle.  According to Scottish legend, in the 900s, the Guardian Thistle as it came to be known, alerted the Scots to a night invasion of Norsemen when one of the invaders stepped on its prickles.  Take a look at those stickers! “Ouch!!!

Thistle 

Another version of the tale tells us the entire garrison of Norsemen took off their boots to wade through a castle moat, but instead of water, they found themselves in a dry bed filled with thistles.  In either case, the result was the same; the yells of pain roused the Scots, who then defeated the Norsemen.   

8.  Slow and steady wins the race, even in the plant kingdom.  Generally, the slower growing a tree is, the longer it lives.  Fast growing trees expend their energy on quick growth and reproduction, while the slow growing ones use their energy for structural support, and to develop defenses against disease and insects.  The slow growing oak tree, for example, can live for centuries.  In contrast, the quick growing willow has an average life-span of 30 to 50 years.

9.  Say to someone, “I’ve got to clean the helicopters from the gutters”, and most everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about.  Tell someone you’re going to clean the samaras from the gutters, and you’ll leave many people scratching their heads.  Samaras are winged seeds such as ash or elm keys, and of course, maple helicopters.  

10.  Crabgrass is a thorn in many lawn enthusiasts’ sides.  The good news is the grass is an annual; it dies after one growing season.  The bad news is each crabgrass plant produces 60,000 seeds in a single season.

11.  Ferns were a mystery to ancient cultures.  Without visible flowers or seeds, it was not understood how ferns could reproduce.  Therefore, the ancients believed the flowers and seeds of ferns must be invisible.  And of course, invisible seeds must have the power to make those lucky enough to gather them invisible too.  This mysterious plant reportedly flowered on St. John’s Eve, and golden seed fell to the ground, ripening in the moonlight.  Cloths or pewter plates were placed beneath the plants to collect the seed.  So polish your pewter, and mark your calendars for next year; St. John’s Eve is June 24th.   But lest you think I am endorsing this practice as a means to obtain actual invisibility, it must be noted that there are no eye-witness accounts of invisible persons roaming the land due to the magical fern seeds … but then again, there wouldn’t be, would there?

Cinnamon Ferns 

There.  I feel better now that I’ve cleared some space in my head; a bit freer perhaps.  Give it a try, and unclog your brain too.  What useless information do you have up there?

Now, I’ve got to go find those car keys.  I bet someone dusted them with fern seed in an attempt to make me think I'm losing my mind.  It might be working. 

cindy murphy
9/7/2011 8:02:17 AM

Yep, Dea Mae, I wonder all the time who first discovered what…like how we learned what parts of plants are poisonous, and what is edible. Some ancient dies from eating a plant; why would another then try a different part of the same plant. Just to see what happens? “Let’s see…Augustus, Flavius, and Bob died after eating the leaves last week. How about we try the stalks this week.” “I’m not gonna try it; you try it.” “I’m not gonna try it.” “Hey, let’s get Mikey. He'll eat anything.” Ok, so it probably didn’t happen that way, but it’s still fun to wonder. Thanks for your comments, and enjoy your day.


cindy murphy
9/7/2011 7:46:06 AM

Terry, say it isn't so! You mean I can't expunge brain clutter by passing it along? Drat! There goes my plan to erase all those horrid lyrics from 70s pop songs stuck in my head, (Muskrat Love comes to mind; what me to sing a verse or two). And I do agree - nothing is actually useless if one can glean something from it, or apply its principles in any way. Thanks for stopping in, (even if it does mean I've learned Muskrat Love is gonna have to stick with me forever).


dea mae
9/6/2011 8:23:33 PM

Hi...Oh, I so love the "fluff" of plant info. Did you ever wonder who figured it out first? An example...who guessed it would be the inner bark (scrapped off the outer bark) of the choke cherry that when heated made a good cough fixer...Did they try the outer and discard it, not the leaves because...why...Keep up the great blog...and Thanks.


terry jenkins
9/6/2011 2:03:13 PM

Hi Cindy, I am sorry to break it to you, but you can never divest yourself of information, especially by passing it along - that only feeds it! Thanks for doing this anyway. I would respectfully disagree that # 2, 3 and 4 are "useless", however! These are exactly the kinds of useFULL information about plants we should never to forget, in case it's needed in the future, whether near or distant.


cindy murphy
8/31/2011 7:09:09 AM

Wow, Nadya - lots of very cool information. I had no idea artichokes were related to thistles. I love learning new stuff. Thanks for stopping in and sharing! Cheers to you too.


nadya
8/30/2011 2:53:07 AM

Hi, Cindy. I love this! & I knew most of them (or parts of - thistle story was new :) My former hubby's a botanist, & so there's lots of botanical trivia in my head; I'm also someone who remembers lots of little bits of data - & since going Gluten Free, seem to remember more of the 'nitty gritty,' too! Let's see ... thistles we eat (usually cooked) include artichokes (flowers) & cardoons (stem/leaves; flowers are edible, but smaller so rather 'fiddly' to bother with) & Milkthistle seed is great for detoxing the liver. I've used cardoon seeds that way (they're also fiddly to separate from the heads - a fork & a lot of time work best) ... Quinoa & Lambs quarters are closely related, look & taste very similar. I'm growing several versions of amaranth & quinoa, also Good King Henry (edible, used to be grown in English veggie gardens), Magentaspreen & Orach. (the latter two yet to be planted). Both leaves & seeds lf these plants have been used in many cultures. Our wild West Coast Angelica is closely related to Dong Qoi, the Japanese or Chinese version, & can cross. Cheers!


cindy murphy
8/26/2011 10:17:55 PM

Thanks, Dave and Michelle. I really am very appreciative of your comments. Yep, Michelle, pretty cool beans if you ask me, (Stepper is in there too)! Proud, as you should be, Dave. I've got no other blog; heck, I didn't even know what a blog was exactly until Hank suggested I try it, (shoot, I can't believe it's been three years last month!). The only other thing I really do is post as a member of a friendly, small message board that I've belonged to for years and years. Between here and there, I have enough trouble keeping up. (Oh! After all that trauma I put myself through, I never did finish that certain piece for the writers group. I ended up writing about plants....and it ended up being even more racy, if you can imagine that. Nope, scratch that. Don't imagine anything! I was embarrassed enough the first time around!)


cindy murphy
8/26/2011 9:48:57 PM

Hi, Paula. Thanks for stopping in, and welcome to Grit. I've been enjoying your blog, and have been meaning to leave a comment, (love the sunflower photo!), but always seem to be running short on time lately. Maybe once the kids are back in school things will calm down around here some. Only one more week to go! Enjoy your weekend.


cindy murphy
8/26/2011 9:29:30 PM

Hey, Stepper. Your head is filled with cattail fluff? Is that like having a built-in pillow wherever you happen to lay your head? More comfy, I'd think, than it being full of dust and cobwebs like mine. It would seem, wouldn’t it, that there would be some type of use nowadays for milkweed fluff; the plant is so easy to grow. I think it’s ironic that something that used to be farmed, is now regarded by farmers as a nuisance. Their attempts at eradicating it and other weeds have really affected the Monarchs who lay their eggs almost exclusively on milkweed. While Monarchs aren’t endangered, their numbers appear to be dwindling… An acquaintance of mine in very involved with the Monarch Watch, and takes care of a couple of Monarch Waystations, which are gardens specifically designed to attract the butterflies. We seem to have less Monarchs here this summer than in years past. She told me they migrated down your way too early, and with your (unbearably) hot temperatures a lot of the milkweed had shriveled. The wild fires compounded the problem…and along with all the flooding between there and here, the butterflies have had an especially difficult migration. It’s amazing to me that they travel that far in the best of weather!


nebraska dave
8/26/2011 6:01:17 PM

Cindy, I have to agree with Michelle. You are a funny, talented, informative writer. As for me I'm just blogger and proud of it. I don't think I'd ever make it as a writer but you definitely have the gift and I know that you practice perfecting the talent in writer's groups. It certainly shows. It surprises me that you don't have a personal blog outside of GRIT or maybe you just keep it a secret. I always like to see a new post from Cindy the master gardener from Michigan. Have a great day at the nursery.


michelle house
8/26/2011 5:34:30 PM

Hi Cindy. Again? How cool is that. :D You're welcome, I really mean it, you are a very talented writer.


paula ebert
8/26/2011 12:14:44 PM

This is fascinating information. You have to appreciate the little interesting things in life...


chris davis
8/25/2011 9:16:27 PM

Ah my dusty headed friend, it is, as usual, fun to stop by to see what you've got to say. All I need to do now is decide what my teachers meant when they said my head was full of cattail fluff. And, "Hey, get a load of the 'bracts' on my dogwood" just isn't that catchy so despite your good information, I think I'll stick to calling them flowers. (But I like knowing the trivia!) Milkweed. What I knew about milkweed was that Monarch butterflies seem to love it which to me is good enough reason to plant some, but I didn't know about all the other uses. I'm surprised there isn't a cottage industry trying to compete with cotton. The total sum of my botany ‘dust’, on a pinhead, would resemble a ball bearing going down a four lane highway at 90. Please feel free to continue sharing the useless information.


cindy murphy
8/25/2011 7:41:04 AM

Hi, Michelle. I'm the same way - I can remember small details about a lot of stuff, even conversations from years ago like it happened yesterday, but have to leave myself little reminders about what I need to get done today or else I'll forget. I did find my car keys, btw. They were, of course, the last place I looked, (eye-roll). I'm flattered, and glad you enjoy my blogs; I'm always glad you stop in, and enjoy reading what you have to say too. Did you know your comment on my last blog appears in the current issue of Grit?


cindy murphy
8/25/2011 7:28:20 AM

Yeah, Dave…unfortunately most of the stuff clogging my brain cells is really very useless, although I’ve been known to spew some of it out on occasion. Sometimes it nicely makes a point. Last week, a customer came into the nursery wanting something to kill his crabgrass. It’s kind of late in the season here for that – it’ll die soon on its own anyway. I suggested he save time, money, and a needless application of chemicals by going home and checking if it’s gone to seed yet. If it had, it’s too late, and he’d be better off applying a pre-emergent in the spring. If it hasn’t gone to seed, then he could prevent each crabgrass plant from bearing 60,000 crabgrass babies that would spring up in his lawn next year. “60,000 babies!!!” He went home to check. I didn’t know that sheep eat thistles…..I didn’t know that anything ate thistles. Dang, that sounds painfully unappetizing! I learned something the other day about thistles (other than sheep must have iron stomachs). Goldfinches nest very late in the season – they wait until the thistles have gone to seed, because the use the down to line their nests. I didn’t know about the corncob rows either. I’m always amazed by the symmetry found in nature. Enjoy your day


michelle house
8/24/2011 10:46:11 PM

the only one I knew, was the #4, pine tea is good for you. I can thank Jean Auel for that info. ;p My mind is cluttered with tons of useless stuff. I can't remember what I had for dinner last week,but I can remember what happened over 30 years ago. lol. As always, I enjoy reading your blog. You are one talented writer. :)


nebraska dave
8/24/2011 5:26:57 PM

Cindy, OK, you got me on this one. Useless information? The best one is the information about the use of Milkweed silk. Who knew there were so many ways the fluff from a milkweed could be used. Those pesky thistles story was quite interesting. I do know that sheep love those things and will eat them right down to the ground. Crab grass!! Did you say crab grass? Ack, no wonder it's tough to get rid of crab grass when they have 60,000 babies right in my yard for each plant. Did you know that if you count the rows of kernels on an ear of corn in the center of the ear, they will always be an even count. Have a great day filling up the void in your mind from the elimination of the useless information.