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Plant City Observer Friday, Jul. 17, 2015 3 years ago

Learning to Love the Weeds: Bidens Alba

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by: Amber Jurgensen Managing Editor

By Donna Bollenbach | Florida Native Plant Society

Nothing attracts more butterflies and bees than a simple white flower called bidens alba.

Also called romerillo, beggar’s tick, Spanish needle or monkey’s lice, this Florida native wildflower is the third most reliable source of nectar for pollinators in our state. There would be many starving bees and butterflies if not for the bidens family of flowers.

More so, bidens alba and its sister plant, bidens pilosa, are both edible and have medicinal value.

Yet, many gardeners have a love-hate relationship the plant, and some even consider it a pesky weed. Why?

The word bidens means two toothed, which describes the needle-like seeds that flowers in this family in enormous amounts. If you walk through a patch of bidens that have gone to seed you come out looking and feeling like you were attacked by an army of little black needles — and good luck getting them out of your clothes.

The “hitchhiker” seeds are easily spread by people, animals, wind and water, so it grows everywhere and anywhere, and once established, it is hard to get rid of.

While not a neat and tidy plant, it is can be showy at its peak. The pretty white-and-yellow daisy-like flowers bloom throughout spring, summer and fall in Florida. It becomes quite weedy as it ages, but if allowed to grow in a sunny area along a fence line, or in the back of your garden and out of the way of any foot traffic, it will pose less of a problem for you when it goes to seed. What small discomfort you may feel by the prickly seeds in your shoes and socks, you will be rewarded tenfold by the colorful pollinators that you will attract to your yard.

While bidens alba is a great source of nectar (food) for pollinators, it is a host plant to certain species of butterflies and moths. Host plants are specific plants that a female butterfly chooses to lay its eggs. The caterpillars will feed on it also.

Each species of butterfly and moth has a preferred host plant and are dependent on them to produce offspring. By planting a combination of nectar and host plants in your garden you will not only be helping the butterflies, but you may be able to witness the complete metamorphosis cycle of a butterfly from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to adult.

HOW TO GROW

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Bidens alba is a member of the aster family (asteraceae). It is very easy to grow. If you don’t already have it growing naturally in your yard, you can plant it from seed.  Consult your local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and someone may have seeds they will give you. If not, the seeds are available online from the Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative (FloridaWildFlowers.com).

Sow the seeds in mid to late spring.

Bidens alba likes full sun but will easily tolerate some shade.

Like any new plants, you must keep it well watered until the young plants are well rooted. It prefers moist soil, but once established, it will grow without irrigation and will survive all but the most extreme droughts. In most Florida climates it blooms nearly year round. The plants may die after the first frost but will come back quickly when the weather turns warm. A single plant can produce 3,000 to 6,000 seeds, so if you don’t want them to spread you need to pull up the plants before they go to seed — or you can eat them.

The fresh or dried leaves of bidens alba are edible. Peggy Sias Lantz, author of “Florida’s Guide to Edible Wild Plants,” recommends that you pick the youngest leaves and sprouts and “cook them in a few changes of water to get rid of the bitterness.” She also writes that if used sparingly, the leaves and flowers can also be tossed into a raw salad.

As for the medicinal value, sources say that the leaves of bidens alba can be used to make a tea to ease the symptoms of colds or the flu. Others claim they can be added to baths to ease skin irritations. The bidens family of plants has many more healing properties, but due to their powerful chemical make-up, they should not be used without the advice of a skilled herbalist.

Bidens alba: Weed or wildflower? It is all in the eyes of the beholder — and the butterflies.

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Some common native butterfly host plants you should consider planting along with bidens alba are:

Passion flower vine, a host plant for the zebra longwing and the gulf fritillary

Carolina wild petunia, a host plant for the common buckeye and the white peacock

Native milkweeds (not tropical), host plant for the monarch and the queen butterflie

Host Plants

Some common native butterfly host plants you should consider planting along with bidens alba are:

Passion flower vine, a host plant for the zebra longwing and the gulf fritillary

Carolina wild petunia, a host plant for the common buckeye and the white peacock

Native milkweeds (not tropical), host plant for the monarch and the queen butterflies

Donna Bollenbach is the vice president of both the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the Friends of Kissimmee Prarie Preserve State Park. She loves to photograph nature, especially Florida native plants and animals. Join the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society at SuncoastNPS.org. The chapter meets every third Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Seffner Extension Services office.

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