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.

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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.

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Things I Learned In Summer Herbalism Class

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been taking herbalism classes at the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s urban farm in Washington, D.C. I got to talk to other plant nerds, ate all kinds of weeds, and learned LOADS. I loved it so much that I’m already planning to sneak back down to D.C. in October to get my season’s worth of herbal info in the autumn classes.

Things I Learned In Summer Herbalism Class

This one is fennel. You might have eaten it as a spice or had the bulb as a vegetable. It’s a member of the carrot family and can help stimulate the production of breast milk. Fascinating, right?

Since it’s summer (and, as everyone in New York reminded me before I can here: summers in D.C. are brutal. (although I hate to burst your collective bubbles, NYC people, but here in D.C. we have air conditioning and trees and sky which makes summertime nine-hundred percent more bearable)), we talked about and touched and smelled and ate cooling herbs – the little guys that help with heat-related ailments like sunburn, bug bites, agitation, nerves, and insomnia. The classes were taught by Holly Poole-Kavana, an herbalist who, in my book, is the perfect balance of woo and evidence-based practices.

This plant is called cheeses. Yep, just like the dairy product. It's got little pods that look (but don't taste) a lot like cheese wheels. It's related to marshmallow, okra, and hibiscus and can help with dry eyes, mouth, and skin.

This plant is called cheeses. Yep, just like the dairy product. It’s got little pods that look (but don’t taste) a lot like cheese wheels. It’s related to marshmallow, okra, and hibiscus and can help with dry eyes, mouth, and skin.

How much is there really to say about plants? Ohmylord, SO MUCH. I took notes and I know that I still missed gobs. Here are my six favorite things that I learned.

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Container Gardening

In an ideal world, you’d get to climb a tree every once in a while, but it’s be real here: the most nature a lot of us get to experience is that (terrifying) tiny spider that crawls across the ceiling above our bed at night. Even those of us who live in the greyest of cities haven’t totally managed to escape romanticizing nature, though; we look forward to blueberries in the summer and pumpkins in the fall and count down the days until crocuses finally bloom in the spring.

But Christmas trees (real or otherwise) don’t have to be the only plants you invite into your house. You can start a garden in your kitchen, bathroom or bedroom and have something living and breathing and green in your house all year long. Container gardens can be miniscule things you start in your window sill or massive jungles your cultivate on your porch. All you need is a potted plant to get started. And you really should get started; plants are damn useful things to have around. They keep your space cool, clean your air, calm you down, feed you and add something dynamic to rooms that spend most of their time empty while you’re busy whirling around working and generally being a person.
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