September: Smartweeds Have Much to Teach

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 26
Copyright © John Page Williams, Jr. all rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from Chesapeake Almanac. The month is September and this chapter is entitled "Smartweeds Have Much to Teach."

John Wood was up to his knees in mud and marsh. A biology teacher at Loudoun Valley High School in Leesburg, Virginia, he was starting off a class's school year with a day's field study of freshwater marshes at the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the Potomac about eight miles below Mount Vernon. That morning, they had met Georgia Yamaki and Julie Ballinger, field guides from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and paddled up a creek into the marshes of the refuge in CBF's Virginia canoe fleet.

Mid-September is a great time to be at Mason Neck. The marsh is spectacular, with wild rice standing six to ten feet tall, its stovebrush flower heads ripe with brown grain. At the creek's edge, big arrow arum leaves glistened in the sun, while their ripe, bulb-shaped seed heads drooped into the creek. Marsh hibiscus blossoms added splashes of white and crimson, and tickseed sunflowers shone gold in the sun.

On this day, there were blackbirds, bobolinks, and a few blue-winged teal feeding on the wild rice grains that had just dropped. Occasionally the students heard sora rails calling in the marsh, and they knew that the railbirds were there for the rice, too.

But John, Georgia, and Julie had them looking for another group of plants, small tangled stems growing around the bases of the rice stalks.

"This is smartweed," said Georgia. "It'll make you smart if you eat it. Who needs to try some?"

"Mr. Wood. Mr. Wood does," laughed the students. John and Georgia smiled at each other. They had played out this scene together before.

"Okay," said John, "But one of you will have to eat it with me. You, Ben, take a leaf. Chew it on your front teeth and count to 15 with me."

They never got that high. At eight, Ben yelled and spat out his leaf. Wood's eyes were watering, and he spat out his, too. "Hot stuff," he pronounced, as he passed Ben a jug of lemonade to put out the fire. "Eight second, two-alarm smartweed. I never said it would make your brain smart, but it sure did your tongue. That's oxalic acid. It's common in a lot of plants. Even spinach has a little of it, though usually not enough to taste. Those big arrow arum seeds at your feet are full of it, even though they're very nutritious otherwise. But the only animals that can handle them are the wood ducks."

Julie asked the students to pass a smartweed plant around. She picked another plant, one with tiny hook-shaped thorns all over its stem. "See any similarities between these two plants?" she asked.
The students examined them closely. Most had never tried to look for details on a plant stem before. After a couple of minutes, they agreed that both had short stem sections, and each section was connected to the next by a swollen leaf node, a rounded joint half again as big around as the stem itself. Even closer examination revealed a thin sheath of tissue around each node.

"Both of these plants are members of the buckwheat family," said Julie. "The one with the rough stem is called tearthumb because of the prickers on it. Now you know why Mr. Wood, Georgia, and I have on long pants today. The other plant is dotted smartweed.

"Look closely at the two kinds of seeds," she continued. The students did so and found them to be very similar, like small pyramids. The smartweed seeds had white outer coverings. The tear thumb seeds were slightly larger, with pink coverings. The students pinched them open and found starch oozing out. Julie assured them that the oxalic acid content was low, and several students ate them, pronouncing them mild and pleasant tasting.

"The rice is certainly the most spectacular food plant in the marsh today," said Georgia, "But how would you rate the smartwheat and tearthumb as wildlife foods?"

"Good, I guess," said a student. "There seems to be plenty of starch for energy in the winter and then plenty of seeds around." He waved his arm in a half-circle, pointing in the process at hundreds of thousands of smartweed and tearthumb seeds. "How are they for protein?"

"Very good," replied Georgia. "Buckwheat grains are cultivated for human food in many parts of the world. They're highly nutritious. More important, the seeds of these two plants stay attached to the stalks longer than the rice grains do. In September, most of the rice shatters—that is, it ripens and falls to the marsh. It gets eaten now or it gets covered with silt. The blackbirds, soras, and early ducks like teal eat it, but most of the waterfowl migrating into the Bay won't get here until October and November, and it will be gone. But the smartweed seeds will still be around then. Diet analyses by waterfowl biologists indicate that smartweed and tearthumb seeds are very important in the winter diets of a lot of ducks."

"Diet analysis?" asked another student. "What do they do, interview ducks?"

Everybody laughed, and John Wood replied, "No, they collect stomachs and gizzards from hunters, and then they analyze the contents. Seeds, clam shell fragments, even fish bones can get identified under a microscope. Some important data gets collected that way. When you get back to school, read the chapters entitled "Of Ducks, Geese, and Swan" and "The Lower James" in Brooke Meanly's Birds and Marshes of the Chesapeake Bay Country."

"Gee," said another student, "I never thought there could be so much to learn about two little plants."

"That's what careful observation is all about," said John Wood. "Welcome to Biology class."

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