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NATURE HAPPENINGS - September 2003

Of Cockleburs and Matted Furs
by Damian Fagan

September in the desert is not a glamorous time of year for flowers. Sure, the sun-yellow blossoms cover the Chamisa and skinny flags of Sagebrush plumes wave in the wind. Even Snowball Buckwheat, also known as Fremont’s Buckwheat, resembles a snow-covered shrub, its white flowers forming a dense flat-topped appearance. Maybe those fickle late-summer rains will finally arrive and send the Cliffrose into a second bloom. Mostly though there are fewer species in bloom than during the spring, and many of these autumnal bloomers are members of the Sunflower Family.

One such member whose notoriety is often overlooked is the Common Cocklebur. Disregarded because of its “weedy” nature, these plants occur in fallow fields, wetlands, disturbed sites and agricultural lands. They prefer moist sites to dry; hence, you’ll rarely see one out in the dry lands - except if that site might have held sufficient moisture at some point in time.

A cocklebur seedling looks a lot like a young sunflower plant. Pairs of long, elliptical leaves square off from each other. As the season progresses, these annual plants grow taller and put out an elephant ear-shaped leaf. These heart-shaped leaves have long stems and toothed or lobed margins. The underside of the leaf feels rough and sandy to the touch, much like sharks’ skin. Depending upon conditions, these plants might reach 3-4 feet tall. Their stout stems are purplish green and be spotted with black or purple dots resembling a case of the measles.

Both male and female flowers are borne on one plant. This makes these plants monoecious (moan-e-schous) a word meaning “one house.” Tight clusters of yellowish male flowers resemble grape clusters, while the female flowers are smaller and located just beneath these male clusters. The clusters mature at different times to avoid self pollination. The two-chambered bur that results from pollination grows in size until it is roughly 1-2 inches long. The species name for this Cocklebur plant - strumarium - is from a Greek word meaning “cushion-like swelling.” However, that cushion has some spiny character.

Covered with long, stiff, hooked spines, the seed pod turns from a pale green to an ominous brown. The gaffing pole-like spines imitate hitchhiker thumbs, sticking out and waiting for a ride. When a furred animal wanders through the dense thickets of these plants, these spines become entangled in the animal’s fur. As the one pod breaks loose, often a small shower of other pods rains down upon the now-irritated animal. Sometimes the animal will pull loose the pod with its teeth or claws, but often the pod takes a ride only to be broken or pulled off somewhere in transit. Its job of dispersal completed, the pod eventually breaks down and releases its seeds.

Though many animals avoid these plants and seeds, because of their toxicity, the Zuñi Indians ate these seeds raw or cooked. A mixture of smashed seeds, squash and corn was used externally to treat puncture wounds or to facilitate the removal of splinters or spines. Though young plants contain a glycoside named xanthostrumarin, which may prove toxic to livestock if sufficient quantities are ingested, older leaves have been used to treat nervous disorders, hysteria and even colic.

Perhaps the greatest claim to fame for the Cocklebur was the spawning of hook and clasp fasteners. Better known as VelcroTM, the spiny, fur-sticking texture of the pod provided an inventor with the basic concept.
As temperatures cool and the rains return, don’t forget to check out some of the shaggier specimens of the late summer Plant Kingdom. Strolling through a patch of Cocklebur you might also scare up some Praying Mantis, predatory insects hiding amongst these weeds. Though exploring these patches is a whole different experience than a walk through in winter, who knows, maybe you too will develop a new product that “sticks” with us all.

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