What is this mystery plant?

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 By John Nelson 

I remember as a teeny-tiny just-beginning botany student how wonderful it was to read about new plants, learning their names, identifying features and habitats. A new world had opened up to me. I liked nothing better than to curl up in the library with a pile of books on plant life. Of course, I still like doing that, but there’s nothing that quite comes close to the wonder and newfound interest of a serious undergraduate student, spending time in a library surrounded by picture-books, all because they want to be there.

One thing I do remember is reading about an odd sort of habitat for many of the most common species: “waste ground.. I eventually realized “waste ground” is not easily defined; it may be more up to the imagination of an individual what this phrase embraces. By now, I have a rather broad concept of “waste ground.” This term should bring to mind neglected or forgotten places, and not just in urban landscapes. City-dwellers, however, are most likely to see waste ground around them: open lots, ditches, alleys, trash piles, dumps, abandoned yards, places where buildings used to be … all of that. The concept of waste ground as a definable term brings along a certain amount of “baggage,” I think, in that such places must be uninteresting and undesirable, very low on the list of places you’d want to visit. They are places that are rejected and forgotten, unwanted and unused. It makes me think that there is a parallel with the way in which many human beings are considered.

Waste ground to a botanist, though, is anything but uninteresting. Because of their nature … some new and recent, and some old and enduring, depending upon their disturbance history … these places can be gold mines of plant life. It is true many weeds find their way into waste ground, but that’s part of the fun. Here’s a waste ground weed that I will confidently bet is growing somewhere near your home.

It’s a member of the sunflower family, and more precisely related to lettuce and its numerous relatives. The stems are commonly hollow, frequently blue-green with a chalky look. The handsome leaves are toothed and prickly along the margins, and at the base, each side of the blade is rounded. The stems and leaves will give off a milky juice when damaged. This latex is a bit bitter, but there are those who like to harvest the young leaves to add to their salads. The tiny individual flowers are bright yellow, held together in compact heads, and when mature, the ovary of each flower will form a tiny black achene, mounted on top by a snow-white fluff of silky hairs.

This species has really gotten around. In fact, its native origin is rather obscure, although most botanists think it came originally from western Asia. It’s a weed, to be sure, but weeds are good at getting themselves into new places, not always pristine natural settings, but places that are interesting, nevertheless.

[Answer “Prickly sow-thistle,” Sonchus asper]


John Nelson is curator of A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, S.C. 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go toherbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.