Seeds That Stick To Clothing: Different Types Of Hitchhiker Plants

Seeds That Stick To Clothing: Different Types Of Hitchhiker Plants

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By: Kristi Waterworth

Even now, they’re lingering along the roadside waiting for you to pick them up and take them wherever you’re going. Some will ride inside your car, others on the chassis and a few lucky ones will find their way into your clothing. Yes, weeds that spread by people, or hitchhiking, have certainly taken advantage of you this year. In fact, the average car carries two to four seeds for hitchhiker plants at any given time!

What are Hitchhiker Weeds?

Weed seeds spread in a variety of ways, whether traveling by water, by air, or on animals. The group of weeds nicknamed the “hitchhikers” are seeds that stick to clothing and fur, making it difficult to dislodge them immediately. Their variously barbed adaptations ensure that the seeds will travel far and wide via animal locomotion, and most can be eventually shaken off down the road somewhere.

Although it might sound like all fun and games, the weeds spread by people are not only difficult to contain, they’re costly for everyone. Farmers lose an estimated $7.4 billion each year in productivity to eradicate these pest plants. Humans are spreading these seeds at a rate of 500 million to one billion seeds a year in cars alone!

Although the weeds within crop stands are annoying, those that appear in fields can be downright dangerous for grazing animals like horses and cattle.

Types of Hitchhiker Plants

There are at least 600 weed species that travel by hitchhiking with humans or on machines, 248 of which are considered noxious or invasive plants in North America. They come from every kind of plant, from herbaceous annuals to woody shrubs, and occupy every corner of the world. A few plants you might be familiar with include the following:

  • “Stick-tight” Harpagonella (Harpagonella palmeri)
  • “Beggerticks” (Bidens)
  • Krameria (Krameria grayi)
  • Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris)
  • Jumping cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)
  • Hedge-parsley (Torilis arvensis)
  • Calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)
  • Common burdock (Arctium minus)
  • Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)
  • Sandbur (Cenchrus)

You can help slow the spread of these hitchhikers by carefully inspecting your clothing and pets before emerging from a wild area full of seeding plants, making sure to leave those unwanted weeds behind. Also, reseeding disturbed areas like your garden plot with a cover crop can ensure that there’s too much competition for hitchhikers to thrive.

Once those weeds emerge, digging them out is the only cure. Make sure to get three to four inches (7.5 to 10 cm.) of root when the plant is young, or else it’ll grow back from root fragments. If your problem plant is already flowering or going to seed, you can clip it at the ground and carefully bag it for disposal – composting will not destroy many of these types of weeds.

Last, but not least, check your car any time you’ve been driving on unpaved roads or through muddy areas. Even if you don’t see any weed seeds, it wouldn’t hurt to clean your wheel wells, undercarriage and any other location where seeds might be hitching a ride.

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Pollinators love this hitchhiking weed

Hitchhiking was once a common means of low-cost transportation for people unable to afford other means. A person would walk to the nearest road and hold out their clinched fist with the thumb pointed up while attempting to make eye contact with sympathetic drivers.

In simpler times, hitchhikers were frequently provided a ride to a predetermined destination. In exchange they provided companionship and, hopefully, interesting conversation to the considerate driver.

Change in travel protocols notwithstanding, Gulf County still has plenty of active hitchhikers seeking travel on the cheap. The bountiful appearance of unexpected plants indicates where the hitchhiking seeds ended their ride and began colonization of new territory.

One of the most common hitchhiking seeds locally is Bidens alba. It is known by an assortment of common names including Spanish needles, Beggar’s-tick and Hairy Beggar’s-tick and is a member of the daisy family.

The genus name Bidens means two-toothed and refers to the two projections found at the top of the seed. The species name alba means white which refers to the flowers with white pedals and a yellow center.

This north Florida native annual uses the two hooked prongs at the end of the seed to attach itself to anything coming into contact. Each plant produces an average of 1,200 seeds which germinate in the spring and rapidly grow.

This weed is common in disturbed areas such as roadside ditches and fence rows with full sun exposure. It is capable of growing to six feet in height, but will take mowing and continue blooming.

The relatively recent interest in wildflowers has encouraged the propagation of this plant for landscaping purposes. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to control its spread once established.

Its spreading habits may cause consternation for landscapers, but it does have some positive effects. The blooms are a popular source of pollen for honeybees and other pollinators.

Hackelia virginiana is another hitchhiker currently active in Gulf County. Common names for this weed include Beggar’s Lice, Sticktight and Stickseed and mothers countywide have removed these from their children’s clothing.

The seed pods are approximately one-eighth of an inch long and are covered with stiff bristly hairs protruding in every direction. Like Spanish needles, anything which brushes against these seeds will carry at least a few to new locations.

The seed pods are green, but will dry to a dark brown. When the outer husk is peeled away, the seed appears as a tiny tan to white bean.

The plant is an erect and has a single stalk about three feet in height. This shallow-rooted plant produces a bloom in mid-to-late summer in north Florida, and seeds in October.

This biennial plant has yet to gain the appreciation of wildflower lovers. It is universally considered a weed pest and treated as such.

One byproduct of hitchhiking weeds has been the inspiration for Velcro. Even unwanted visitors occasionally bring about something positive.

3 Answers 3

You have hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in your garden. This plant very often comes as "hitchhiker" with newly bought plants.

It is a very prolific seeder and can bring even two generations in one year, the first in spring, when the overwintering plants set seeds, one in late summer, like you are observing now.

The main problem is actually interesting: bittercress plants can "shoot" the seeds out of their seed pods and spread them out in up to a meter distance from the parent plant. So if you let just a few plants go to seed, you can get a "carpet" of weeds in no time.

Control depends on your preferences. As bittercress doesn't form a dense root structure and doesn't grow back from tiny particles left in the ground (like bindweed, for example) hand weeding or hoeing works well and the flat rosettes are easily smothered with mulch. But you want to make sure you pull the plants before they start to set seeds and you need to find all of them if ever possible. Alternatively, chemical options are available.

You might also find this article from the RHS interesting.

Keep Garden Weeds Guessing

The Andersons Easy Weeder is a season-long weed control product safe to use around gardens, flowers, vegetables, shrubs, and trees. Each application of Easy Weeder provides up to three months of weed prevention, stopping weeds before they have a chance to start.

Featuring a resealable shaker bag and brightly-colored particles, Easy Weeder is both easy to apply and easy to see on soil or mulch and can be applied to the soil/mulch surface or mixed in with soil. This product is designed to be used throughout the growing season, in spring, summer, and fall. Each bag of Easy Weeder provides up to 960 sq. ft. of coverage -- enough to prevent weeds in a space equivalent to a two-bedroom apartment!

- Remove existing weeds and their roots. Remember, Easy Weeder is a pre-emergent weed killer, meaning it will NOT kill existing weeds. It is designed to prevent new weeds from growing.
- Spread a two-to-three-inch layer of mulch. This will assist your soil in retaining moisture and help to prevent weeds from breaking through.
- Apply using the shaker bag to sprinkle Easy Weeder directly on soil or on top of mulch. Be sure to apply when the area is dry to avoid granules sticking to wet leaves.
- After applying, water the area to activate the ingredients and form your weed-prevention barrier.

Learn from weeds

You may hate weeding, but there are reasons to like weeds—or at least respect them.

Weeds are good for your soil, and there's a lot we can learn from weeds. They're resilient enough to grow pretty much everywhere, no matter how poor or barren the earth. They cover and give soil life, much like a living mulch, which is a boon for the climate. And seasonal cycles of weeds growing and dying build up nutrients in the soil and make way for larger plants, like shrubs and trees. Without weeds, the natural landscape we love would be very different.

Weeds also tell you a lot about your soil. Before pulling weeds, try reading what they have to say about your planting area. Weeds can signal whether you have soil that’s low in nutrients, high in acid, or even waterlogged. We highly recommend buying a field guide to weeds growing in your region so you can learn from them.

Soggy soil

Weeds that signal soggy soil: dock, horsetails, chickweed, sedge, and willows

What to do about it: Wet and soggy soils are hard to drain and frankly not worth messing with. Besides, given that wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s probably better for the planet if you just let it be.

Compacted soil

Weeds that signal compacted soil: chicory, knotweed, dandelion, and bindweed

What to do about it: Packed soil limits the ability of plants to extend their roots and absorb vital nutrients for growth. A good way to break up the soil is to plant it with a cover crop like clover or vetch in the fall. The roots can punch through the soil, loosening it in time for the next season’s crop. Another option is to use a broadfork, which is a large heavy four-pronged steel fork that loosens the soil without having to till it.

Acidic soil

Weeds that signal acidic soil: plantain, sorrel, and stinging nettle

What to do about it: Soil that is acidic has a very low pH and, unless you are growing blueberries, your plants will struggle to survive. You can change your soil pH by adding lime, follow instructions from the supplier. The lower your pH, the more lime you will need.

If you don’t want to add lime, you can plant blueberries, rhubarb, endive, shallots, potatoes, or watermelon in that area because they can tolerate soils as low as 5.0 pH.

Basic soil

Weeds that signal basic soil: Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, peppergrass, and chickweed

What to do about it: Basic soil is alkaline, which is another way of saying it has a very high pH. A high pH is usually a result of calcium-rich bedrock. Treating basic soils with elemental sulfur quickly lowers the pH, but we prefer adding lots of compost instead because it yields a bigger return. Compost acts to buffer the soil and prevent sudden changes in pH. The complex molecular structure of compost provides a great deal of hydrogen atoms, lowering pH and enhancing soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients not to mention the carbon benefits of composting.

Another option is to plant your basic soil with asparagus or members of the cucumber family, which do just fine in a high pH environment.

Fertile soil

Weeds that signal fertile soil: foxtail, chicory, purslane, and lambsquarters

What to do about it: Every gardener dreams about having fertile soil, but the downside is that weeds love it too. This means you have to be highly vigilant about removing weeds as soon they crop up and before they start to seed, or they’ll wreak havoc on the rest of your plants.

Dry and sandy soil

Weeds that signal dry and sandy soil: sorrel, thistle, yarrow, and nettle

What to do about it: Sandy soil is not a terrible thing. In fact, many vegetables love the loose, well-drained stuff. Best way to deal with this is to grow plants that love living in it, which include carrots, beets, onion, and garlic. Toss in some extra compost for a nutrient-boost.

Heavy clay soil

Weeds that signal heavy clay soil: plantain, nettle, and quack grass

What to do about it: Most plants have a difficult time thriving in heavy clay because the dense soil makes it difficult for healthy roots to develop. But some plants do just fine in this dense environment, including shallow-rooted annuals, like lettuce, chard, and beans, which appreciate the moisture. Deep-rooted top-heavy crops, like broccoli and cabbage, also benefit from the stability offered by clay.

Article originally published on Stone Pier Press, written by Acadia Tucker, a regenerative farmer, climate activist, and author.

Watch the video: How Plant Seeds Travel the World