Dear Readers, many moons ago I was doing a biology field course, and we were trying to identify the plants that grew along the coastline at Slapton Sands in Devon. It always amused me that we were not supposed to be looking at the ‘yellow Asteraceae’ because they are so difficult to identify. Well, here we are some twenty years later, and I still have trouble with the various yellow daisies that you can see growing everywhere at this time of year. I have gone out on a limb, though, and think that this one is catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), a very common ‘weed’ of disturbed ground that seems to take over from the dandelions about now. My Harraps Guide to Wildflowers suggests the following ways of identifying the yellow members of the daisy family that pop out at this time of year:
- Are the flowers solitary (as here) or are there several flowers on the stem?
- Are the flowering stems branched or unbranched (unbranched on my particular plants, but can be branched too, which isn’t helpful)
- Are the flowering stems leafless or leafy? Catsear has no actual leaves on the stem, but it does have tiny triangular scales, which might be just about visible on the stems below (if you squint)
- Then the next thing is the bracts (the green ‘bits’ that the flower emerges from). In catsear there’s a ‘cockscomb’ of short bristles near the tip.
So many members of this family are named for animals – in addition to catsear we have goats beard and hawkbit, hawkweeds and hawkbeards, oxtongue and sowthistle. Catsear is supposed to be so named because of the shape and fine hairs on the basal leaves. See what you think. I think if my cat’s ears looked like this I’d be off to the vet.
The Belted Beauty moth caterpillar is said to have a taste for catsear. The males are rather splendid, but the females are small wingless furry creatures, who presumably hatch and then sit around emitting a pheromone and waiting for the males to find them. You can also see all manner of bees and hoverflies feasting on those yellow flowers.
Catsear is native to Europe but, like so many similar plants, it can now be found all over North America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, and in some places it’s designated as a noxious weed. It’s been said to cause a disease called Australian stringhalt in antipodean horses, and very nasty it sounds too – it’s a sudden spasmodic contraction of the hind legs, and is most commonly seen in horses that have recently been turned out to pasture, especially in drought conditions. The damage might be caused not by the plant itself, but by a fungal mycotoxin that’s found in the soil, and then taken up by the plants, to be subsequently eaten by the horses.
Catsear has long been eaten by humans with no such ill effects – young leaves can be used much like those of dandelion, and are said to be much less bitter. In Crete, the leaves are steamed or boiled and used as a vegetable (Greece in general makes extensive use of the young leaves of all kinds of what we would consider ‘weeds’, and very sensible too). There is also a lovely recipe here for pasta with catsear leaves and asiago cheese. Yum!
The roots, much like those of chicory, can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the scientific name ‘hypochaeris’ means ‘under/young pig’, which seems to suggest that the roots were also a favourite with pigs.
And finally, a poem. This reminds me of walking in Austria, and seeing the bees feeding from the flowers that emerged from the very edge of the melting snow. How I miss those meadows of spring flowers! Maybe next year….
The poem was found on New Zealand Poetry Shelf, curated by Paula Green. Well worth a look!
This for the end of a year
from a chorus of short-tongued alpine bees by Bernadette Hall
Let us give thanks for the flushes and zones of colour
in the herb-field, for the alpine genera,
the wire rush and the tangle fern, the sheep sorrel
and the cats-ear, the gentians and the astelias and everything
that grows under the edge of a melting snow-bank.
Let us give thanks for the cranesbill geranium and
the mouse ear myositis, for the ranunculus (little frog mouth,
little friend), for the feathered myrrh of the nival zone,
for the bog moss in the tarn,
for all that is and all that has been and all that is to come.
It is for us to keep our courage firm,
to nurse our appointed pain,
to await ‘that which springs ablaze of itself. ’
Photo One by Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two By Harald Süpfle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11172412
Photo Three By Harald Süpfle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11172306