Thanks to the contributions of two energetic people who know plants, chavezpark.org is publishing a complete botanical inventory of the park. Jutta Burger PhD is Lead Scientist for the California Invasive Plant Council, and Bob Huttar is a certified arborist and a consulting field biologist specializing in botany generally and rare plants in particular. Together they are photographing and identifying everything that grows in the park, both common and scientific names. They’ve done the scientific heavy lifting. I’m adding some background blog-talk. We’re publishing the results in a series, with a new installment every Friday.
We begin this episode in the Game of Thorns drama with one of the great botanical villains of the park, the Foxtail. Many a dog left to wander on its own has got the seeds of this plant into its nose, ears, or eyes, often requiring a trip to the veterinarian, at considerable suffering for the animal and expense for the owner. Uncounted dogs have carried the seed in their coats and dropped it somewhere else, ensuring the propagation of the plant species. From time to time, dog owners organize and hold foxtail removal events while Parks management makes extra passes with the mower blades set low in the hope of suppressing this plant.
Thanks to the mower and the loose dogs scattering its seeds, this plant is abundant in the park, particularly in the central and northern portions. Scientifically, this Foxtail is hordeum murimum, a variety of barley.
As a member of the barley family, Hordeum murinum is no ordinary weed. Its close relative Hordeum vulgare and its descendants have a history going back ten thousand years as a staple food and beverage, as a coin and a unit of measurement, and much else. It’s a key ingredient in beer and whiskey. It remains the fourth largest grain in worldwide cultivation, behind maize, rice, and wheat. It gave us the word “barn,” which originally meant “barley house.” It is the basis of numerous foods from breads to meals, flours, pastes, soups, and stews, all rich in essential nutrients including protein, fiber, B vitamins, and dietary minerals such as manganese and phosphorus.
According to Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration, consuming at least 3 grams per day of barley beta-glucanor 0.75 grams per serving of soluble fiber can lower levels of blood cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.
Eating whole-grain barley, as well as other grains with lots of fiber, improves regulation of blood sugar (i.e., reduces blood glucose response to a meal). Consuming breakfast cereals containing barley over weeks to months also improved cholesterol levels and glucose regulation.W
Continuing with the villains theme, the next character is Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).
This is the plant that killed Socrates. Its chemical action is similar to nicotine and curare; that is, it produces muscular paralysis beginning in the extremities and culminating in the respiratory system and the heart muscle. Damage to the kidneys also occurs and may result in acute renal failure if death does not intervene. The plant may also have an addictive property. Animals who have been poisoned but not fatally from feeding on the plant tend to return to feed on it again. All parts of the plant are poisonous. About six to eight fresh leaves may be enough to kill an adult. There is no known antidote.
Here is a dramatic painting by the French classicist David titled The Death of Socrates. Not yet dead by any means, Socrates is about to accept a cup containing a tincture of fresh Conium leaves with wine. He will soon be history.
Burr Chervil (Anthriscus caucalis) looks just a little bit like the Poison Hemlock, above. Similar leaf shape. Small white flowers with five petals. Both are members of the carrot family. But Burr Chervil is not poisonous. Its close relative, common chervil, is used as a cooking herb. Burr Chervil’s seeds have lots of little hooks that stick to your socks and are hard to get out; hence the “burr” in the name.
Best to be careful when picking some for the kitchen. Generally, the hemlock is quite a bit bigger than the chervil, but of course a young hemlock can be smaller. An easy distinction is the red or purple splotches that Poison Hemlock has down on its stems.
Also be aware of Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum), a plant similar to Poison Hemlock in size, or bigger, but valuable if handled correctly as a food plant and for traditional medicine. So far, Cow Parsnip has not been spotted in the park. I once thought I had it, but it was Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). If you see Cow Parsnip, please leave a Comment.
The Oblong Spurge (Euphorbia oblongata) has a milky sap in its stems that’s a dangerous eye irritant. It doesn’t occur often enough, apparently, to have an extensive scientific literature about it. It may or may not be toxic to humans. Wildlife don’t like its taste. It probably inhibits the growth of other plants around it, although in the dense free-for-all in the park in springtime, this effect was not obvious. The California Invasive Plant Council calls it “a scourge of spurge.”
This tricolored flower grows just north of the Flare Station, among other spots. It’s called Sky Lupine, or Field Lupine, or similar names. Scientifically, it’s Lupinus nanus. It’s the only item in today’s Flora Friday selection that is a native of California (and Oregon and Nevada).
Like many other lupines, this plant contains biologically active alkaloids that are poisonous to humans and livestock if eaten in quantity. The California Poison Control System rates lupines “4,” its highest toxicity rating.
Now to close with some sweetness. When crushed, the flowers of Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea) emit a fragrance a bit like chamomile or pineapple. The leaves also have a sweet scent. It is not poisonous. The plant is edible and can be used in salads or for making herbal tea. (It’s also known as wild chamomile.) It typically grows in places where humans have disturbed the soil, which is true of the entirety of Cesar Chavez Park.