From lowly weed to ephemeral beauty

We arrived at my in-laws in Mount Shasta, CA yesterday afternoon, and as I was walking around in their backyard, one plant caught my eye right away. 


In one area of the yard, there is an ocean of seed heads that glow like ethereal lights when backlit by the late afternoon sun. At first glance they look a little like dandelions on steroids, but with perfectly round heads. Looking closer, you begin to see the individual seeds symmetrically arranged around a central spoke. The seeds, technically dry fruits called achenes, have a number of delicate-looking feathery bristles called pappus that help them drift more efficiently on the wind.

These seed heads are so beautiful that you’d expect them to come from an equally beautiful plant. That’s definitely not the case here. The plant is a plain-looking non-native weed called Tragopogon dubius, about 2 feet tall. An import from Europe, it has many different common names, including western salsify, yellow goat’s beard, or just goat’s beard. My in-laws call it “milkweed” although it is not related to the real milkweeds (Asclepias). 


Actually, the flower, about 2 inches across, is quite handsome up close. While Tragopogon dubius is not closely related to dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), they’re both in the aster family (Asteraceae) and share general similarities.


If it weren’t for the fantastic seed heads, nobody would be paying much attention to the plant. But while they last, the seed heads are a sight to see, especially backlit and up close. Who would have thought that a lowly weed but be the source of so much beauty!



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