Untamed Lowcountry

This relative of dandelions is short on looks, but used worldwide for food and medicine

Burnweed is a tall, scraggly plant with tiny flowers packed into tight clusters.
Burnweed is a tall, scraggly plant with tiny flowers packed into tight clusters.

If overlooked in your yard, American burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius) seems to pop up overnight.

It starts off as a nondescript, low-growing plant with ragged, green leaves. Then it keeps growing ever taller. Within weeks it develops into a robust, bushy plant seven to eight feet tall.

It’s a member of the plant family Asteraceae, which also includes sunflowers, asters, dandelions, daisies, and over 23,000 other species.

In contrast to its lavish leaf production, burnweed (also called fireweed) produces minuscule tubular flowers, each only a quarter of an inch across. These “disk” florets — roughly comparable to the tiny flowers in the center of a daisy — are packed by the dozens into cylindrical clusters near the top of the plant. They’re insect-pollinated, particularly by wasps.

Burnweed is native to North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean, but human activities have spread it to far corners of the world.

As a “weed,” ecologically speaking, it’s adapted to colonizing a wide range of disturbed habitats, including farm fields, gardens, weed lots, roadsides, and areas that have been recently burned (hence its name).

Aside from its rapid growth rate — a common weed characteristic — burnweed produces huge numbers of tiny, dry, dandelion-like fruits, each containing a single seed. With the aid of parachute-like hairs, these are disseminated far and wide by the wind.

Crushed burnweed leaves have an acrid odor and reportedly an unpleasant taste. (I haven’t been motivated to sample them.) However, there are accounts in the literature of culinary uses of this plant, both raw and cooked.

The species also has a varied history in folk medicine around the world. Both foliage and roots have been used to treat hemorrhoids, dysentery, colds, lung infections, rashes, and other disorders.

In some parts of its range, burnweed grows so prolifically that it’s considered an agricultural pest. This big, scraggly plant may not fit cozily into your Lowcountry garden — it doesn’t into mine — but I can’t help but admire it for its vigorous and unfettered approach to life, even in places where it’s not supposed to grow.