Weeds With Spiny Seed Pods

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Beautiful but dangerous, jimsonweed sent British soldiers who used it in a salad into a stupor for 11 days. We find it in Brooklyn. Appreciate this witchy weed’s beautiful blooms and spiky seedpods, but beware. Its notoriously toxic seeds and leaves can cause convulsions, hallucinations or even death, and climate change is making its poisons even more powerful. Prickly lawn weeds are the worst. They don’t just ruin the aesthetic of your lawn - they’re darn painful to step on! I talk about the most common culprits here.

Urban Forager | In This Wicked Weed, the Devil’s Trumpet Blows

Jimsonweed has been on my radar ever since I researched it for a presentation on wild weeds and fungi last year, so I was intrigued when I discovered some spiny seedpods recently in an alley in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Originally thinking they were empress tree pods, which are similarly sculptural but smooth, I brought them back to my workspace, where a friend helped to correctly identify them as Datura stramonium, or jimsonweed, and their source (the garden of a local artist around the corner).

Jimsonweed, a k a Jamestown weed, mad apple, devil’s trumpet, locoweed, stinkwort or thorn apple, is a strikingly gothic-looking plant with seedpods that could have inspired the creator of “Little Shop of Horrors.” It has toothed leaves, stems that are reddish-to-dark eggplant in color and lovely trumpet-shape white or lavender blossoms, as long as a finger, that open at dusk. Found along roadsides, ditches and open fields in most states, including New York, where it grows as far south as Staten Island, it’s listed as a noxious weed in Pennsylvania and banned in Connecticut. An informal poll of writers from the Writhing Society at Proteus Gowanus described the plant as smelling like peanut butter, skunk cabbage and someone’s childhood cottage, but the first time I sniffed it, I thought of tahini.

Much of the literature and testimony surrounding Datura stramonium and related species, including D. meteloides, D. wrightii and D. innoxia, point to its psychotropic, hallucinogenic and narcotic properties, where it is inextricably linked to shamanism (in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan”) and even zombies (from Wade Davis’s “Passage of Darkness” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow”).

Some of the no-joke side effects from ingesting jimsonweed read like a 1970s public service announcement warning against angel dust and PCP: dilated pupils, racing heartbeat, hallucination, delirium, combative behavior and in severe cases, coma and seizures.

In 1676, British soldiers sent to Virginia to quell Bacon’s Rebellion ingested Datura stramonium in a boiled salad and remained in a stupor for 11 days. More recently, in 2008, a family in Maryland was poisoned when they mistook it for an edible garden green and ate it in a stew.

Written testimonials for Datura on the Erowid Web site , under titles like “Truly the Devil’s Weed,” “Nightmares in Flux” and “This is Madness,” include delusions of phantom cigarettes, conversations with imaginary friends, amnesia, blurred vision, a desire for cold showers and other irrational behavior. It’s no wonder that Amy Stewart devoted an entire chapter to it in her book “Wicked Plants.”

According to Daniel E. Moerman’s “Native American Medicinal Plants,” some American Indians use jimsonweed topically for wounds and inflammation, and there are reports of it being used as a treatment for asthma. But because of the plant’s more negative plant-human interactions, most folks are understandably wary of it, and many parents have been advised to root it out of backyards and gardens.

Jimsonweed is now in full flower across the city and in some cases sprouting mature seedpods, but I’m content to admire its beauty from an arm’s length.

Weed of the Month: Jimson Weed

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.

The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.

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Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey[s].”

Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.

Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!

The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.

Browse the Weed of the Month archives >

Saara Nafici is the executive director of Added Value/Red Hook Community Farm. She is also the former coordinator of the Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a longtime activist, feminist, bicyclist, naturalist, and youth educator. Follow her weedy plant adventures on Instagram.

Prickly Lawn Weeds (7 Different Types)

It’s a brand new morning with the birds singing and a soft, gentle breeze. A hot cup of coffee sits in your hand, the steam and aroma waft up as you take a deep breath. You place your bare feet onto your soft, spongy turf then… ouch! You found a prickly lawn weed! When this happened to me, it meant war, and I set out to identify, research, and destroy every last spiky weed on my lawn.

Stick around while I identify different types of weeds with thorns and tell you how to get rid of each type of prickly weed you may find on your lawn.

Most Common Prickly Lawn Weeds (Short Answer)

Burr Medic, Goat Head Weed, and Lawn Burweed are low-growing prickly lawn weeds. Spiny Sowthistle and Spiny Cocklebur are high-growing spiky weeds you may see on your lawn that can release painful burrs you may never see. Carolina Horsenettle and Jimson Weed are nightshade relatives and are both weeds with thorns on their stems.

A Closer Look at the Different Prickly Lawn Weeds

Some weeds may give you a prick when you touch them, while others may stick into your flesh as you pass. One thing is for sure, none of them are good for your lawn. Anything that scratches, pokes, stabs, or slices needs to be removed from your turf ASAP.

Below I’m going to talk you through some of the most common types so you can identify and then hopefully remove them too, restoring order to your lawn.

Burr Medic (Medicago polymorpha)

What It Does: This lawn weed with thorns grows low and, sporting trifoliate leaves, blends in with clover in a yard. Burr medic puts up small yellow flowers in March and June and then produces seed pods. By late summer, the pods dry up and open, dumping several seeds across the turf. These pods have spikes that allow them to hitchhike and spread throughout your lawn.

What It Looks Like: Burr Medic is related to Black Medic and resembles Clover. It has a thin, smooth, red-purple stem and produces oblong, green leaves. The leaves alternate along the stem in groups of three. The leaf tips are serrated and appear sharper than other trifoliate weeds. These prickly lawn weeds produce yellow pea-shaped flowers that are arranged in clusters of 2 to 10. Seed pods are green to brown with a sharp hook.

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How to Get Rid of It: You can remove a small patch of these spiky weeds by hand, but make sure you wear gloves. It is best to remove them when you see the yellow flowers before they drop seeds. If there is a larger area of Burr Medic, you can use a broadleaf herbicide to kill it.

Goat Head Weed (Tribulus Terrestris)

What It Does: A fast, low-to-the-ground prickly weed that can grow a dense, prostrate stem mat up to 5ft long. Goat Head Weed overtakes dry, damaged, and neglected areas and then creates tons of inconspicuous flowers. As these flowers die away, seed pods are formed with several pointy spikes. These barbs can grab onto anything and get spread far and wide. They grow a deep taproot that can be hard to separate from the turf.

What It Looks Like: Goat Head Weed goes through several lifecycle stages and can be hard to identify before it’s too late. In the early stages, on a lawn, it will be hard to see and identify. As it grows large, the stem will remain erect in a crowed area to compete for light. In the open, it will sprawl across the ground and not stand upright. When it blooms, you will see bright yellow flowers with 5 petals each, roughly the same size as the leaves of the weed. These spiky weeds on your lawn turn reddish-brown after they flower.

How to Get Rid of It: While there are many ways to kill this weed, its complete destruction and the removal of all seed burrs are very difficult. To kill the plant, you can burn it with fire until the mass above the taproot is charred. Vinegar with 5% acidity or higher and herbicides like glyphosate and oryzalin are also effective. Once the weed is dead, you can rake or pull an old carpet over the area to collect the dreaded Goat’s Heads.

Lawn Burweed (Soliva sessilis)

What It Does: Found in thin and patchy turf, these prickly weeds on your lawn can be a real nuisance. Lawn Burweed germinates in the fall and grows through the winter when turf may be dormant. When the temperature warms up in the spring, these weeds produce buried seed pods that are carried throughout the lawn all summer and cause a painful sting when stepped on.

What It Looks Like: Early detection is key to preventing these burrs from occupying your lawn. Burwood grows low and branches freely. It has small, grayish-green leaves that grow opposite and are sparsely hairy. It produces small, ¼ of an inch flowers that can go almost completely unnoticed on a lawn. These flowers are replaced by small spine-tipped burrs that are often felt rather than seen.

How to Get Rid of It: Maintaining a thick, lush lawn throughout the winter months will prevent prickly lawn weeds like Burweed. If you can identify it in winter, you can use post-emergence herbicide through December, January, and February. After that, it will be hard to control without killing your turf and you should pull up (with gloves) and rake what you can and plan to attack next winter.

Spiny Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)

What It Does: Not a true thistle, this spiky weed starts with a basal rosette that closely resembles thistles. Spiny Sowthistle grows in neglected areas and can get up to 6ft tall. The leaves of this plant are very prickly and the flowers develop from spiky buds. It exudes a milky sap when cut that is quite sticky. Accidentally hitting these prickly weeds on your lawn with a weed whacker can create a sticky, spiky mess.

What It Looks Like: Spiny Sowthistle resembles a spiky dandelion. It has similar leaves, albeit much more prickly, that are a similar bluish-green. It produces the same yellow flower and the same tuft of white seeds. It is much larger than a dandelion and spreads rapidly.

How to Get Rid of It: Manual removal of Spiny Sowthistle is possible if the area is small. Wearing gloves, full skin coverings, closed-toed shoes, and eye protection, you can dig out the roots of this weed in the spring before it flowers. To discourage regrowth, you can pour vinegar around the base of the weeds. For larger areas, you will need to apply 2,4D or glyphosate herbicide to each plant before it flowers. After the plant dies back, dig it up by the roots and reapply the herbicide into the hole where you removed the weed. Do this until they stop coming back.

Spiny Cocklebur (Xanthium spinosum)

What It Does: High-growing lawn weeds with thorns, these invaders can reach 3 and a half feet tall. They produce a deep taproot and take over dry, disturbed territory. When the flowers die, a two-chamber burr is released. Each burr has two seeds, one germinates that following spring but the other delays for 2 or more years. Complete removal is a multi-year process.

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What It Looks Like: An erect stem with many branches, this tall annual has yellow, 3-parted spines. The leaves are lance-shaped, 2 inches long, and smooth on top. Each leaf is shiny, dark green, and has small white hairs on its underside. The flowers are inconspicuous cream to green in color and bloom from December to May.

How to Get Rid of It: Hand removal and chemical treatment are both effective ways to eliminate these prickly lawn weeds. For hand removal, you will want to wear full protective gear, as these weeds can irritate the skin. Pull up all Spiny Cocklebur and any seedlings and dispose of them – don’t compost the waste! You will need to repeat this each spring for the next few years. Mowing on your highest lawn setting once a week during the early spring and as frequently as needed during the late spring can prevent Cocklebur from producing seeds. A post-emergent herbicide applied at the start of the year can also be effective.

Carolina Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense)

What It Does: A member of the nightshade family, it is not a nettle but grows like one. It occupies dry and damaged turf. While the fruit of these weeds may look like tiny tomatoes, they are toxic to people and pets, and simply touching the plant can cause you to break out in rashes. They grow tall and emerge in spring when they choke out thin turf. Worst of all, they are lawn weeds with thorns on their stems and leaves.

What It Looks Like: Carolina Horsenettle looks like a spiky vine that creeps across the ground. They have prickly, oblong, dull green leaves that are about 2 to 6 inches long. These prickly weeds bloom from May to September and open between 5 and 20 pale violet, star-shaped flowers. The fruits look like little tomatoes, but turn from green to yellow and never turn red.

How to Get Rid of It: Getting rid of these types of weeds with thorns can be very tricky. It spreads by creeping roots and root fragments, as well as by seeds. Each plant can produce 5,000 seeds. Hand-pulling is not advised because of the long thorns that can penetrate even gloved hands. A glyphosate herbicide can be sprayed or painted onto the weeds. After the weeds die off in a few weeks, they must be dug up and another application of herbicide should be applied to the holes to kill any root fragments. Repeat as needed.

Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium)

What It Does: Another spiky relative of the tomato, Jimson Weed produces big poisonous fruits encased in a spiky shell. Jimson Weed can grow to several feet and produces flowers from May to September. They create spiky seed pods that burst open and spill hundreds of seeds all over the place.

What It Looks Like: A broadleaf annual, this prickly lawn weed can grow to 4ft tall. The leaves are lanced-shaped, oblong, and about 2in long. The colors of the stalks and stems of these weeds can range from green to purple. Each flowering stem produces a single white, trumpet-shaped flower that opens to around 2 inches.

How to Get Rid of It: While wearing gloves, you can hand pull Jimson Weed before it produces seeds. Place all yard waste in a bag and dispose away from your lawn. Repeated pulling of infested areas should yield a weed-free yard in a few seasons. A selective herbicide can be used to treat a larger area where this invasive plant is present.

About Tom Greene

I’ve always had a keen interest in lawn care as long as I can remember. Friends used to call me the “lawn mower guru” (hence the site name), but I’m anything but. I just enjoy cutting my lawn and spending time outdoors. I also love the well-deserved doughnuts and coffee afterward!

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