Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Smartweed Family
Nature Bulletin No. 352-A   October 4, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE SMARTWEED FAMILY
We will never forget a friend who, long before daylight on the first day of every November, routed us out of bed for a "Halloween breakfast" at his house -- stacks of buckwheat pancakes made with freshly ground flour just received from his kin in Pennsylvania, covered with gobs of butter and buckwheat honey, flanked with spicy pork sausages. That was a breakfast fit for a king. That stuck to your ribs.

Buckwheat, a member of the Smartweed Family, was cultivated in Asia and Europe for a thousand years before colonists brought it to America. Its name comes from the German word Buchweizen, meaning beech wheat, because the black triangular seeds resemble the nut from a beech tree. Grown less extensively now than in early days, about two-thirds of our crop comes from New York and Pennsylvania. It grows well on poor soil with little cultivation, and so rapidly that, in an emergency, it can be planted in midsummer and yet ripen before frost. A field of buckwheat, blanketed with its white blossoms, is a paradise for bees. Smartweeds, too, although the honey is lighter in color and not so strong, are the principal source of nectar in late summer and early fall. Other very important cultivated members of this family are Sugar Beets, Mangel-wurzels, Garden Beets, Swiss Chard and, believe it or not, Rhubarb.

The smartweeds and their relatives make up one of the larger plant families, totaling about 800 species. Of 50-odd kinds widespread in the United States, most can be found in the Chicago region, including Red Sorrel, Sour Dock and several other kinds of Dock. Most of them, however, bear the scientific name Polygonum, meaning "many knees", because their stems have swollen knots or joints and often make zigzag bends where the leaves are attached. This group includes the many kinds of smartweeds, the knotweeds; the Black Bindweed which, twining like the morning-glories, is such a pest in farmers' fields; and the Climbing False Buckwheat. The latter is a common vine in woods and thickets. It may reach 20 feet in length, its leaves are heart- shaped, and in autumn the vines are loaded with black 3-angled seeds.

The Common Knotweed, or Goose Grass, is a sprawling branching plant with tiny oval leaves. It is seen most often in the packed earth of footpaths, lanes and barnyards; or in the cracks of sidewalks. Its little nutlike seeds were parched to make "pinole", eaten by the southwestern Indians. Virginia Knotweed, or Jumpseed, occurs in woodlands, forming waist-high thickets of crisscrossing wands. In autumn, hickers are often puzzled by the rattling bombardment of seeds when these switches are jostled. Each seed sits on a short stalk with a brittle joint and a core of compressed pith that, like a popgun, can shoot the seed as much as 10 feet when the hooked spines at its tips are touched.

The smartweeds are divided about equally between kinds which prefer well-drained uplands and those which, thriving in moist soils and swamps, rapidly cover exposed mud flats in late summer. Their blossoms vary in color from pale pink or purple to bright scarlet. The Lady's Thumb Smartweed often covers stubble fields after a grain crop is harvested. Its leaves, marked with a dark heart-shaped "V", will burn your tongue and bring tears to your eyes when chewed. The plentiful plump seeds of smartweeds and knotweeds furnish from a tenth to a quarter of the food for wild ducks, upland game birds and many songbirds.

They are strictly for the birds and the bees.


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