People working in their yards or rambling in the woods this fall are in for an unpleasant surprise. They’ll find their pants, socks and even shoes covered with small burs that resist removal.
Although many plant species produce burs, perhaps the most widespread and familiar is the Virginia Stickseed. It enjoys living in woods and partial shade on the edge of yards, campgrounds, golf courses and trails. The plant ranges across most of the Eastern United States and can be found nearly anywhere in Iowa.
Virginia stickseed is a biennial. During its first year it is a fairly attractive rosette of deep green ground hugging broad leaves. In its second year it sends a shoot upward that produces many tiny white flowers in midsummer.
Few people notice this plant until they brush against one in late summer or fall and are immediately covered with tiny burs. By the time the burs are ripe, the brittle plant has died and sometimes clings to pant legs. Often dogs and deer are covered with burs that some people call beggar lice, sticktights or hitchhikers.
Producing burs is a clever plant strategy. Often a person returning from a walk sits on the porch picking off burs that end up sprouting in the yard next spring. They also commonly fall off animals, enabling the plant to spread far and wide.
We know of no simple way to remove burs and have not found any of the advertised removal tools effective. Picking hundreds of tiny tickseeds from clothing is tedious but does work. Be sure to dispose of them in a way that they can’t germinate. We sometimes drop them in a charcoal grilling fire or flush them down the toilet.
Homeowners can reduce the odds of finding burs on their pants and socks by recognizing Virginia stickseed and removing them from the property during spring and early summer. They are easy to uproot.
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l Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.