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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!!!


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.