Untamed Lowcountry

This Lowcountry plant has many names and the ability to make our winter less gloomy

Beggar-ticks produce flowers and sticky burs throughout fall and winter.
Beggar-ticks produce flowers and sticky burs throughout fall and winter. Submitted photo

Having lived most of my life in colder places, I’m still surprised to find flowers in bloom here in the Lowcountry during the winter.

One of these is Beggar-ticks, a common roadside plant that starts flowering in the fall and stays in bloom long after most other species have finished. It provides a welcome splash of color in an otherwise relatively subdued winter landscape.

Beggar-ticks is a member of the plant genus Bidens, a group of some 150-250 species (estimates vary) in the Aster family. As in asters, daisies, and many other close relatives, each “flower” of Beggar-ticks is actually a cluster of many small, tightly packed florets: tubular “disc” flowers in the center and strap-like “ray” florets radiating out all around them.

Aside from being taxonomically challenging to biologists, the various kinds of Beggar-ticks have been given multiple common names and variant spellings over the centuries: Beggar’s-tick, Beggarticks, Spanish Needles, Shepherd’s Needles, Cobbler’s Pegs, Farmer’s Friends, Devil’s Pitchfork, Sticktights and Bur-marigold, among others. And that’s just in the English language.

As a group, Beggar-ticks are widely distributed throughout much of the world, where they have many other common names in different languages and localities. Some species have been used as food or medicines.

Here in the Lowcountry, you can find Beggar-ticks flourishing in masses along roadsides, in weedlots and waste areas, and at the edges of woods and clearings. Many of the plant’s common names refer to its distinctive bur-like clusters of tiny fruits, each equipped with hairs or barbs. The burs readily adhere to the clothing of passing humans and to the fur or feathers of other animals. In this way, seeds get widely transported to new habitats.

Although often dismissed as invasive weeds, the various kinds of Beggar-ticks are important pollinator plants. Their flowers provide nectar for bees and wasps, plus Gulf Fritillaries, Monarchs, Painted Ladies, Common Buckeyes, and many other late-summer and fall butterflies.

One species in particular, Bidens pilosa, has a long history of medicinal use in Africa and elsewhere throughout its widespread range. Current research on the pharmaceutical properties of this plant may help develop new drugs to treat malaria, dysentery, or other ailments.