In The Weeds: Gallant Soldier

The difference between a weed and a flower is judgment. Or maybe just attention. Who – other than the gardeners who spend hours uprooting them – really thinks about weeds? Weeds are tenacious growers, always looking for new ways to survive where they’re not wanted. Although most are unassuming, they always carry rich histories and often have potent properties. Learning about these overlooked plants can teach us about spontaneity, endurance, and healing. Every two weeks, I’ll find out everything I can about a local (to wherever I am at the time) weed that’s in season so that we can become acquainted with one of our quietly fierce neighbors.


Context is everything. In Colombia, guascas are an essential ingredient in a chicken and potato stew called ajiaco. In the U.S., gallant soldiers are organic gardeners’ worst nightmare. No matter what you call them, Galinsoga parviflora are probably the cutest members of the daisy family.

Despite being “gallant,” these little guys look like they came out on the losing side of a battle. Galinsoga parviflora grows about 30 inches tall on branched steps. The opposite leaves are toothed at the margins and about 2 inches long. ¼” composite flowerheads have yellow disk flowers and white ray flowers. If you rub the yellow centers between your fingers, 25 or so small, black seeds will have already formed. The 5 toothed ray flowers are usually evenly spaced with nice, big holes between them. Unlike some members of the aster family, gallant soldier’s ray flowers are pistillate. The seeds from disk flowers use a pappus to travel while ray flower seeds spread with a winged structure.

Gallant soldier’s more hirsute brother, shaggy soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata), looks similar but has hairy leaves. Be careful not to confuse the two edible species of galinsoga with the poisonous tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens). Although the flowers are nearly identical, tridax daisies hug the ground, with only the stem and flower growing straight up. Tridax daisy leaves are diamond-shaped, while gallant soldier leaves are more oval.

Gallant soldier is native to South America. Specimens were brought to Kew Gardens in the 18th century and quickly took the heck over Great Britain with a new name: kew weed. The plant was virtually unstoppable; seeds seemed to form as soon as the distinctive flowers blossomed. By the time anyone realized gallant soldier was in their garden, it had already produced another generation of tiny soldiers.

One released from their Andean home, the army of gallant soldiers kept multiplying; it’s now naturalized on every continent except Antarctica. One of my favorite names for this common weed comes from Malawi, where it’s called Mwamuna aligone or “my husband is sleeping.” And while the botanical name, Galinsoga, isn’t the most unique — its named after Ignacio Mariano Martinez de Galinsoga, a Spanish doctor and botalist — Dr. Galinsoga was pretty forward-thinking. In 1784, he published Demostración mecánica de las enfermedades que produce el uso de las cotillas, a book about the health hazards of wearing corsets.

Speaking of your health — gallant soldier contains compounds which researchers have found can be beneficial to people with diabetes and high blood pressure, and is comparable to spinach in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can eat young stems and leaves as a salad green or cook yourself a pot of ajiaco. Gallant soldier is as good for your skin as your belly; you can rub it on nettle stings to stop the burning or on small cuts to help coagulate the blood. If all else fails, you can leave it in your garden to distract bugs from eating your vegetables. Whatever you do, though, don’t put it in your compost bin — the seeds can live for up to twenty years and if they germinate, you’ll have a new war to wage.

Fucking Pansies!

Next time someone tries to tell you that queer and trans folks have taken our identities too far, give them a botany lesson. Plants are SO queer, y’all.

Before we get into all the very exciting sexualities that plants have, let’s talk about their sexy parts. If you’ve ever taken a 6th grade science class, you’ve probably learned about the “male” and “female” parts of plants. Since we’ve all come to recognize that there’s nothing inherently “male” about sperm or “female” about eggs, it’s about time for a vocab rehab. I’m excited about all the trans and queer plant-lovers out there who are rethinking ways that we can talk about and learn from plants. Today, I’m going to talk about “stamens” and “pistils,” and I can’t wait to see what we come up with in the future.

With that in mind, let’s hop in the Magic School Bus and learn all about plants’ bits.

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In plants, we usually call sperm “pollen.” That’s right allergy sufferers: sperm is the cause of all your springtime snot. The part of the plant that produces pollen is called the stamen. Stamens consist of two parts: the filament and the anther. The anther is covered in pollen and the filament is the thin strand that supports the anther.

Plants have eggs that, when fertilized, mature into seeds. The part of the plants that produces seeds is called the pistil. Pistils are made up of the stigma, style, ovary, and egg. In humans, ovaries produce eggs while uteruses incubate fertilized eggs that grow into fetuses. In plants, the ovary both produces the egg and is the enclosure where seeds grow. The stigma is the sticky landing pad where pollen collects. The style is the tube that connects the stigma and ovary. When pollen lands on the stigma, it grows a tail through the style so that it can deposit its genetic material in the egg.

The plant world has a gorgeously diverse combination of pistils and stamens. The names can get really long, but if you divide the parts up by their etymological roots, you’ll know what’s going on. To make it easier to read, I’m going to put dashes into long words.

Flowers can be either bi-sexual or uni-sexual.

  • Bisexual flowers have both stamens and pistils. Bisexual flowers are also called perfect — let’s hear it for the perfect bisexuals — mono-clinous (monos = one, cline = bed), andro-gynous, herm-aphrodite or syno-ecious (syn = together, ecious = house). Famous bisexuals include Lily (Aldrin) and Rose(a Diaz).
  • Unisexual flowers have only stamens or only pistils. These flowers are also called imperfect, di-clinous (di = two, cline = bed), or incomplete. Watermelons are unisexual.

A species can have bisexual flowers, unisexual flowers, or both! We group them depending on whether these flowers live together on one plant or separately on different plants.

The zucchini flowers facing up are staminate and the flowers facing down are pistillate.

Monoecious (monos = one, oikos = house) species have some flowers with only stamens or some flowers with only pistils, but all the flowers live on the same plant. Corn and zucchini are both monoecious.

  • Flowers with only pistils are called pistillate.
  • Flowers with only stamens are called staminate.
  • Some plants have both bisexual and unisexual flowers on the same plant.
    • Gyno-mono-ecious plants have pistillate flowers and bisexual flowers, but not staminate flowers.
    • Andro-mono-ecious plants have staminate flowers and bisexual flowers, but not pistillate flowers.
    • Poly-gamo-mono-ecious plants (also called andro-gyno-mono-ecious, poly-gamous, tri-mono-ecious plants) have staminate flowers, pistillate flowers, AND bisexual flowers all on the same plant.

Some plants fall somewhere between monoecious and dioecious. They’re called subdioecious or polygamodioecious.

  • A sub-gyno-ecious plant has mostly pistillate flowers, but some staminate or bisexual flowers on one plant.
  • A sub-andro-ecious has mostly staminate flowers, but some pistillate or bisexual flowers on one plant.

A staminate pistachio tree

A pistillate pistachio tree

 

 

 

 

 

Dioecious (di – two, oikos = house) species have flowers with stamens on separate plants from flowers with pistils. Holly and pistacho are dioecious, which is why you only get berries and nuts when you have a pollen-producing and an egg-producing plant near each other.

  • A gyno-ecious plant has only pistillate flowers.
  • An andro-ecious plant has only staminate flowers.
  • Some species have both bisexual and unisexual flowers, but on different plants.
    • A gyno-dio-ecious plant has pistillate flowers on one plant, bisexual flowers on another plant, and no staminate flowers. Wild beets are gynodioecious.
    • An andro-dio-ecious plant has staminate flowers on one plant, bisexual flowers on another plant, and no pistillate flowers. Japanese ash is androdioecious.
    • A tri-oecious plant has bisexual, pistillate, and staminate flowers on different plants.

Plants have one more trick up their sleeves. They can change from pollen-producing to seed-producing over time in a process called dichogamy (dikho = apart, gamy = marriage).

  • Proto-gynous plants produce eggs first before producing pollen. In pearl millet and avocados, the pistil matures first.
  • Prot-androus plants produce pollen first before producing seeds. In corn and many members of the carrot family, the stamen matures first.

In The Weeds: White Snakeroot

“Weeds are flowers too,” said Eeyore, “once you get to know them.”


A few weekends ago, my boo, Isa, and I went on a walk in Prospect Park. She’s an avid birder (is there any other kind?) and I love plants more than cheese, new shoes, and lots of other Very Good Things. It was my first time in the park in the fall and I was amazed that even in October, there were fat, speckled berries on the trees and a rainbow of flowers along every path.

Although birders keep lists for big days (Isa’s that day had a pin warbler, a dark-eyed junco, a clark’s nutcracker, and 9 others), most plant people want more. We like to know where a plant comes from, how people have used it, how it grows, where it got its name, and at least three fun facts to foist on a friend who never asked us to identify it in the first place.

All of which is a long way of saying that it’s high time for a weekly series where we learn everything we can about weeds. I’m starting with intrigue; this weed’s story is a heady mixture of animal husbandry, deadly contagion and, of course, a good dose of misogyny and white supremacy.


As we walked through Prospect Park, every trail seemed to be bordered with clumps of small, white flowers. I identified them as white snakeroot, but didn’t think much of the nondescript blooms until we left the woods. The same white flowers were peeking from under every tree on Isa’s street and had even colonized a pot on her front stoop. Suddenly, like pumpkin-spice in October, white snakeroot was everywhere.

White snakeroot grows in shady, wet places.

It turns out that you’re most likely to find white snakeroot growing in shaded, moist, and uncultivated areas – just like the wooded areas of Prospect Park and the untended patches of ground under urban trees. Although herbaceous, it can grow as high as four feet tall (which just might be where it gets its latin species name altissima). Its bright white flowers are usually the first thing to catch your eye among the decaying autumn foliage. In fact, the latin genus name ageratina refers to its “unaging” quality. The blooms of this native perennial are 2-6” clusters of what appear to be ¼” flowers. In reality, each flower is an inflorescence composed of dozens of tiny disk flowers. Later on in the fall, the disks are replaced by small white hairs that help the seeds spread in the wind. White snakeroot’s toothed leaves grow opposite on purple-stained stems.

Leaf miners often leave lacy patterns on the leaves of many plants, but they don’t seem to hurt mean old white snakeroot.

Named for the its root’s more useful property as an indigenous snakebite remedy, white snakeroot is better known for its role as a staunch native defender of what we now call North America. In the 1800s, Europeans were moving farther west on the American frontier. As they formed settlements along the Ohio River, white snakeroot got busy manifesting its destiny as a killer plant.

Europeans initially began noticing their livestock getting “trembles” before seeing the disease jump to humans in 1809. This “milk sickness” caused people who drank the milk of infected animals to become lethargic and experience severe stomach pain. Doctors tried bloodletting – a very much an en vogue (and totally useless) treatment of the day – milksick patients, but death was inevitable. As many as half of all deaths in 19th century Europeanssettlements are attributable to milk sickness. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is probably the disease’s most famous victim.

While Europeans found milk sickness as mysterious as cholera and yellow fever, indigenous residents were well-acquainted with white snakeroot. A member of the Shawnee nation passed knowledge of white snakeroot onto Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, a European midwife and dentist. Anna’s sister and mother had succumbed to milk sickness, leaving her desperate to understand the cause of the mysterious frontier disease. Milk sickness’s seasonal contagions led Anna to believe that the cause must be a poisonous herb; however, she was unable to identify the culprit until the Shawnee woman showed her the innocuous-looking plant in the 1830s.

At the end of the fall, white hairs help the seeds spread in the wind.

Anna taught European farmers to remove white snakeroot from their field and to prevent their cows from wandering in the woods to graze. This female and indigenous contribution to medicine was largely ignored; in 1928, research confirming white snakeroot’s role in milk poisoning was finally published. With the local success that Anne obtained from her medical and botanical knowledge, she became a famous doctor – perhaps the first woman doctor in the state of Illinois. Legend has it that she buried a treasure in a cave in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois. The name of the Shawnee woman who taught Anna about white snakefoot was never recorded.

Today, tremetol poisoning is incredibly rare. Cows who are given other options will naturally avoid white snakeroot. The modern practice of combining milk from many different cows also lowers the risk of milk sickness as tremetol-laced milk from any infected cow will be diluted to a harmless level.

Although white snakeroot was responsible for the deaths of thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and Europeans, there are are plenty of reasons to appreciate it today. As one of the last plants to bloom during the growing season, it provides food for bees and other pollinators who are stocking up in preparation for winter.

Beginner’s White Wheat Sourdough Boule

You’ve made your decision. You’ve prepared for days. You’re rough and ready. It’s time… to make your first loaf of sourdough bread!

Take a deep breath; this recipe is so un-fussy that even the least experienced baker can get it to work. We’re working with 100%  white wheat flour so that even if something doesn’t go quite right, you’ll still end up with a really nice loaf of bread.

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Making and Baking a Sourdough Loaf

You’ve got a starter, some math knowledge, and all your ingredients and materials pulled together. It’s time to learn the final step: how to build and bake a loaf.

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Rounding Up Sourdough Ingredients and Materials

When I start reading bread recipes, I was intimidated by all the special tools baking required. A peel? Sounds like something that should be on an orange. A lame? Rude.

As it turns out, baking bread requires little more than flour, water, and salt. Plus all the fancy stuff can be replaced by things you probably already have in your kitchen.

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Baker’s Math Practice Problems

Now that your starter is bubbling away and you’ve learned how to write a recipe, let’s rest and take a day to practice some Baker’s Math. The answers and detailed explanations are at the bottom, so print out the worksheet, grab a pencil and a calculator, and see what you can figure out.

Inspired by practice problems from the Wild Yeast blog.

Problems

1. Convert each recipe to mass

A. Focaccia with 550 g Flour
100% Flour
73% Starter
86% Water
10 % Olive oil
1 % Salt

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