Spanish Needles, Pitchfork Weed

by Green Deane

in Alcohol, Beverage, Edible Raw, Flowers, Greens/Pot Herb, Medicinal, Miscellaneous, Plants, Salad

Bidens Alba, up close

Bidens Alba: Medical Beggar Ticks

Some edible plants just don’t get any respect. If there were a contest for under appreciated plants, Bidens alba, would be a heavy-weight contender.

Biden alba seds, note the two teeth

Nearly anyone you ask about Bidens alba who knows it will say it’s a weed, not a pretty one, nor a useful one, not a nice one. Yet, honey production everywhere would be hurt without the Bidens family. In Florida, B. alba is the third most common reliable source of nectar. Quite an accomplishment for a weed growers and suburbanites are constantly trying to get rid of. Also, without the Bidens species many a butterfly would go to bed…ah…roost… hungry. (The second most common nectar producer in Florida is the saw palmetto and the top producer is the non-native, citrus.)

The B. alba aka Bidens pilosa (BYE-denz AL-bah, pil-OH-suh) also has an edible flower. It’s a tangy if not vigorous addition to salads. Bidens’ young leaves — a few at a time — are suitable for the salad. Shoots, tips and young leaves are good potherbs. It’s dried leaves are also a favored in Hawaii for tea. All of this, yet few guidebooks on wild edibles mention it.

TIMEOUT: Much confusion reigns whether B. alba and B. pilosa are the same or different species. One can find both references, and combinations as in B. pilosa var. alba. A 2006 genetic study showed they are separate species, even if

The smaller Bidens pilosa

the difference is little. So, how can we tell them apart (though it makes little difference as both are eaten.) B. alba is the larger and better (I use “Big Al” to help me remember.)  Its blossom petals are usually a centimeter long or longer, and it has five to eight petals. Think of the B. pilosa as smaller and lesser. Its petals are under a centimeter in length, usually 8 mm or less. It has four to seven petals, or none at all. Some times the geography helps. In Brazil, for example, B. alba grows only on the coast and B. pilosa inland, at higher elevations. Realistically, the differences mean little to us as they are both edible.  Locally we have B. alba with B. pilosa occurring officially in only one northern county, Gulf County. We now resume our article already in progress:

As I  said on one of my videos nature doesn’t know the difference between a cultivated plant and a wild one: She only knows survivors. And Bidens alba — also called Romerillo survives. It grows so happily in my yard I can’t keep up with it. Left to its own, it will take over any unmown spot and populate it with as many Bidens per square foot as possible. Now you know why it is called an “invasive” species. It can have up to 6,000 seeds per plant and the seeds can remain viable up to five years.

Bidens odorata

As for the edibility of the Bidens species, several are mentioned as edible. Find out which Bidens are in your area. The state of Florida does not list Bidens as a plant species that can cause harm, though it has had medical uses, and that in and of itself is a warning sign we shouldn’t ignore. There are at least two negative references I know of about Bidens pilosa. One is that B. pilosa is one of the few plants that can have a harmful effect on the skin because at least one of its chemicals reacts to light (some herbalists, however, consider that beneficial.) The other is B. pilosa (which is the most commonly eaten Bidens) may have a role in throat cancer in areas where opals are also found. This is because B. pilosa will uptake a form of silica — the same that creates opals — and that can have a topical cancerous effect. So if you have “Opaline Silica” in your area — they mine opals there — you might want to pass on the Bidens (I would presume B. alba would also uptake but I do not know.) On the other hand, however, Bidens is also shown anti-cancer activity.

Bidens is in the Aster family, a dicot with a root that goes vertical, not horizontal. That also makes it a composite and a relative of the sunflower. There are hundreds of species — authorities differ on the exact amount. The common names include beggar ticks, bur-marigolds, stickseeds, Spanish needles, tickseeds, tickseed sunflowers, and pitchfork weed.  This is because its seed has two prongs on it that (sometimes four) stick to almost anything. And in fact “Bidens” means two-toothed. Alba is white and pilosa means hairy, or the feeling of hairiness. The Bidens odorata, a frilly yellow version, is also edible though it is a diuretic.

Vanessa cardui, the Painted Lady

By the way, Bidens are “zoochorous” which means the seeds are spread by animals, like the burdock. While the combination does not loose in translation from Greek, it does suffer in pronunciation. “Zoo” is not said like a collection of animals. Rather it is  zoh-OH, which means “animal.” And “chorous” does not sound like a singing group. It comes from the verb score-REE-zoh, which means “I disseminate.” So, if you want to use that word and be close to the original Greek, it is five syllables: zoh-oh-score-REE-zoh.

Several Bidens are food for the caterpillars of some Lepidoptera, such as the Hypercompe hambletoni and the Painted Lady (aka, Vanessa cardui, the brush-footed butterfly). It is said only Sulphur Butterfly feeds off the B. alba as it has phytosterin, which can be a central nervous system depressant and lowers blood sugar.

As for the medical implications, in 1991 Egyptian researchers documented Biden pilosa had antimicrobial activity against a wide array of bacteria including Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Neisseria Gonorrhea, Klebsiella Pneumonia, and against Tuberculosis. It is also good for malaria, snake bite and has anti-leukemia activity.  Research shows it lowers as mentioned blood sugar and blood pressure, stimulates the immune system and is anti-inflammatory. The powdered seeds are a topical anesthetic and aid clotting. There are also some reports the seeds might be good for prostate issues. And after all this the Bidens still gets no respect.

The nutritional composition of the Biden pilosa (and presumably the B. alba) per 100 g edible portion is: water 85 g, calories 43, protein 3.8 g, fat 0.5 g, carbohydrate 8.4 g, fiber 3.9 g, β-carotene 1800 μg, (Leung, W.-T.W., Busson, F. & Jardin, C., 1968). Another study found 111 mg of calcium and 2.3 mg of iron. These researchers also recommend you don’t eat the leaves raw because of a high saponin content. As a potherb they are excellent with many fine qualities: They are available all year round, keep very well, and don’t reduce in size when cooked. If they are a bit tangy, just let them sit cooked a few minutes. They store well. Cooked texture is good. Wine made from Bidens is called sinitsit. Incidentally, dried leaves of the B. Alba also make a good tobacco substitute. In 1962 Professor Julia Morton, who wrote many papers for the Journal of Economic Botany, recommended Bidens become a commercial crop.

There are many edible Bidens and they grow just about everywhere so check out your local species. Those with edible leaves include Bidens bipinnata, Bidens frondosa, Bidens odorata, Bidens parvifolia, Bidens tripartita and Bidens laevis.  Leaves of the Bidens aurea and Bidens bigelovii have been used for tea.

Synonyms for the Bidens Alba/Pilosa include:  Bidens abortiva, Bidens adhaerescens, Bidens alausensis, Bidens chilensis,  Bidens hirsuta,  Bidens leucanthus, Bidens Montauban, Bidens odorata, reflexa, Bidens scandicina…. and….Bidens leucantha var. pilosa, Bidens pilosa var. alausensis, Bidens pilosa var. bimucronata, Bidens pilosa var. minor, Bidens pilosa var. pilosa, Bidens pilosa var. radiata, Bidens pilosus, Bidens pilosus var. albus, Bidens scandicina, Bidens sundaica var. minor, and Coreopsis leucantha

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Compound leaves composed of 3-9 saw toothed oval leaflets. The leaves are one to five inches long and up to two and a half inches wide, bright green on top and hairy underneath. Plant tends to sprawl and root at the lower nodes if it douches the ground. The one-inche flowers in stalked clusters look like coarse daisies with five or more white rays and pale yellow centers. The ribbed seeds resemble flat black needles with 2-6 barbed hooks at each end.

TIME OF YEAR:  Spring to fall, but year round in warmer climates around the world

ENVIRONMENT:  Not fussy about soil but prefers full sun.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Young leaves, tops, shoots as potherb. Some young leaves can be used raw in salads. Try a little first. Flower petals as a trail side nibble or a bit of white in salads. Dried, the leaves can be used as tea or smoked like tobacco. The flowers are mixed with sticky balls of rice and allowed to ferment in water to make a spirit. The leaves are also used in making  wine.

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tammy October 19, 2011 at 01:56

I picked the Bidens alba at the very top of your page. I made greens with the leaves and stems. I added ham and some garlic with a little union. Deane I think that was the best tasting greens I ever ate.

I did make one mistake. I should have just boiled the leave not the stems. The stems tastes really good but take a long time to soften.
I also pick the flowers than just pop them in my mouth. They have a carrot taste.

Greene Deane, I am glad you got this new site. Now I know you will continue to show your videos and articles and now you are here to stay.Thanks so much (also your very funny)

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2 Green Deane October 19, 2011 at 07:11

Most botanists never use this following word because most botanists would starve if the grocery store closed. The word is meristem. Technically it is undifferentiated cells when the plant is growing. We would call that “young and tender.” Not exclusively but usually we want plants in their meristem stage or we want the meristem stage of the plant. For example we want a prickly Sow Thistle when very young and not prickly, or in the case of Bidens alba, if not the young sprouts then the growing tips. The stalks in time become differentiated cells, read they have a job to do and that is hold up the plant so they are no longer young and tender but stiff and hard, read difficult to cook and eat.

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3 pat February 10, 2012 at 13:50

More great info, thanks!

I have sheets of this plant in my gardens right now, as you describe it – as many per sq ft as there can be. Over the next couple weeks will be prime eating for little tender plants.

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4 Green Deane February 10, 2012 at 14:45

Great. Just make sure this time of year it is not dog fennel.

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5 HollyBrown February 22, 2012 at 07:47

Just recently found your site. It is such a great resource! About the Bidens alba/pilosa, I was delighted to feel so confident in being able to identify it, having grown up in S FL with it everywhere. So I have been sampling it a bit at a time. Then I reread your post and realized I am not sure whether the whole flower is edible or just the petals. I have been eating the whole flower head, including the yellow center! I would especially like to know since I have children also, and want to be super cautious with anything they eat (of course if they see me eating it I they want to eat it, so I sometimes have to be a bit secretive). Thanks so much.

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6 Green Deane February 22, 2012 at 16:42

The whole blossom is edible.

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7 FlGardener March 23, 2012 at 21:33

I understand that the B. pilosa leaves have antibacterial properties. Would that also hold true for B. alba? Could those leaves work as such applied topically by bruising them first?

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8 Green Deane March 25, 2012 at 21:21

I would think so.

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9 Joyce March 29, 2012 at 13:26

These bushes used to be ripped out my yard every year until I noticed that honeybees stopped coming to my yard, and my fruiting bushes produced very little fruit. Then we stopped mowing a certain part of the yard, the bidens alba came back, and so did the honeybees. Landscapers would look at us funny when we told them to leave the bidens alba alone, but these bushes, plus the lantana and the stevia, brought back more than enough bees to reward us with a decent fruit crop.

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10 Green Deane March 29, 2012 at 17:08

Interesting how nature works.

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11 Juanita Blaz April 16, 2012 at 03:35

We have the bidens alba on Guam… the young leaves and stems are also used to speed the healing of skinned legs or knees.. crush leaves and tender stems into almost a pulp…. allow juices to cover area, then place rest of the crushed plant over sore.. leave for 30 minutes, remove and let dry completely.. sore should be dry and not get pus or infections by the next day.

Thanks for the info about eating the plant… had no clue…

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12 Dan Dowling May 5, 2012 at 12:25

Just made a huge plate of this using olive oil, lemon juice, finely minced onion, tomatos and also some fresh grated parmesan cheese it was out of sight.

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13 Bo May 6, 2012 at 00:48

I’m wondering about the tobacco substitute property of this plant. Has anyone ever tried to smoke this stuff? Thought I’d ask before I dry some up and mix it in with my loose tobacco.

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14 Joanne August 2, 2012 at 13:51

Wow! This is delightful! I asked a question on YouTube and you directed me here. I did have bidens for lunch, the young leaves, and so delicious! Blossoms at supper, and I have something to tell all my friends. Thanks!

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15 Alison VanderMolen August 8, 2012 at 22:17

Whacking myself on the head after reading this. Here I have been pulling every sprout while having NO CLUE just how valuable this weed (?) is. THANK YOU for opening my eyes!

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16 Bea November 13, 2012 at 07:43

I’m among the many who’ve been trying to get rid of Bidens ( only knew it’s a weed called Spanish Needles ), thank you so much for the useful information, won’t be pulling out every plant- as they do multiply bunches, some are growing near my tree ferns in containers-impossible to pull out- one day when ferns are t-planted into the ground they’ll be separated. Ditches were full of Bidens til parish workers chopped ‘em couple of weeks ago ( as they do pink primroses in the spring) so good thing I have some of both in the back yard.
I’ll call them Bidens from now on, easier, they deserve more respect, thanks to you Dean.

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17 Marilynn Curry November 13, 2012 at 16:49

I am beginning to prepare herbal medicines for myself and for my family. I have been searching to find this weed/herb from different suppliers but no one seems to have any. Do you have any information where I can purchase Bidens Alba or Bidens Pilosa? Thank you.

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18 Green Deane December 11, 2012 at 12:29

Have you tried B&T Seed? Also, where do you live. Perhaps I can send you some, they are seeding now.

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19 Jenny Franklin December 14, 2012 at 18:08

I also am searching for a source of Bidens pilosa to start in our medicinals garden here in central Texas. I would be happy to reimburse you for seeds if you would be kind enough to send them to me.

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20 Green Deane December 14, 2012 at 18:36

It doesn’t grow here. Have you tried B&T Seed?

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21 Carol March 3, 2013 at 10:59

My horses also love to eat bidens alba. I pick huge armfuls to feed them, being careful to remove any dried flowers and seed heads first, especially in winter when pasture is limited. I allow bidens pretty much full rein over the farm except garden areas because it is so useful. I keep a 30 x 50 ft area unmowed each year just to enjoy the bee and butterfly show, except I do pull out any dog fennel.

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22 Nermina March 20, 2013 at 20:22

I am new to Florida and I noticed these white little flowers everywhere around here and found out that it was called Spanish Needle. It seems as widespread as Dandelion is in the Midwest. I am just wondering is there any species that looks just like it that might be poisonous or am I basically safe to start picking it and eating without worrying too much ?

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23 Green Deane March 21, 2013 at 07:35

No species look alike if you look close enough. That said yes there are several plants that look similar when young to young Bidens. To help ID look for last years plants nearby.

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24 heather macleod March 24, 2013 at 11:20

As a child growing up in Florida, I called these “sidewalk daisies” and put the flowers in my hair, but never considered them for a bouquet. But, years ago, I grew to respect their beauty when one night, after having allowed a clump to grow for flying critters in my garden, I noticed their luminescence in the moonlight. It was breathtaking, that clear night, those glowing flowers. Now I put them in vases, and have started using them in cooking. Thanks!

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25 Julia April 27, 2013 at 00:53

Wait… “The flowers are mixed with sticky balls of rice and allowed to ferment in water to make a spirit” ????

More info on how to do this please!

And, what are the medicinal benefits of a Spanish Needle-infused spirit?

Thanks for this awesome website!

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26 Susan Mahan May 6, 2013 at 09:22

Ever since I took a small survival course from a local native American Indian, I have been cultivating the “Spanish Needles” in certain parts of my back yard. It was mentioned in this course that the early colonists here in Florida used this plant for its high vitamin C content to combat scurvey along with pine needle tea. It apparently was highly prized back then and was considered by the instructor as a good survival food. But I was a bit foggy on the means of preparation. Thanks for this resource.

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27 anne June 17, 2013 at 09:44

its amazing how Spanish needles change the flavor of free range chickens eggs…and all the pretty white butterflies around them are a plus this time of year

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28 Alex February 14, 2014 at 00:19

Do you feed them to your hens?

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29 Lysa August 9, 2013 at 18:25

Wanted to pass on a great recipe for these abundant greens. … Place a piece of fish (i like to use salmon) on some tin foil. Wash a big handful of fresh, washed greens and plop them right on top of the fish. (don’t forget your spices and butter, etc. on it all) Close up the foil, poke a few wee holes in the top and bake for around 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Yum. …. Like so many others, I used to curse this little beauty. It seemed the more I tried to get rid of it, the more it would appear! Thank Goodness!! And thank YOU, Green Deane!!

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30 Avery Owen August 19, 2013 at 20:47

Dean,
Love your site, you got me inspired years ago to find what weeds in my yard was edible in order to supplement my garden. Bidens pilosa / alba (which way outdoes my garden) was my first love; I eat it all the time, mostly in omelets. Here is some recipes I have found in my searches: “Blackjack” (bidens pilosa’s common name in S. Africa) with coconut milk:
http://203.64.245.61/web_docs/recipes/African%20Traditional%20Recipes_final_English.pdf
and ‘Ladakhi tea’ in the Himalayas:
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10722-009-9441-3#page-1
(I make this minus the Yak butter and milk). Hope this adds to the collection, keep up the great work.

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31 Christine December 2, 2013 at 10:51

Is this plant eatable for rabbits?

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32 Green Deane December 2, 2013 at 14:58

I’ve seen wild ones eating it.

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33 Diana June 29, 2014 at 09:50

Dear Dean

Biden Alba leaves and stems can heal Herpes 1 and 2 ?

Thanks

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34 Green Deane July 7, 2014 at 15:36

I don’t know. I am not an herbalist, but they do have some photosensitizing qualities for some people.

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35 Deborah A July 20, 2014 at 16:44

I feed it to my rabbits whenever I think about pulling some up. They seem to love it.

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36 Nicole January 16, 2014 at 23:38

I guess I’m confused and nervous about how much a “small amount” to eat raw is. One of the posters here said he made a whole salad out of it!

I’ve eaten it before because I read it was editable, but I’d eat a lot more of it if I knew the “quantity” (oz.?) I should stay BELOW. Seems like just adding a handful to a salad is enough and safe, but I eat 2 salads a day.

Thanks!

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37 Green Deane January 17, 2014 at 06:49

Julia Morton reommended it become a commercial crop and did not set any limit on it. I think a raw large salad would upset my tummy but I have a tender tummy. I also don’t think the flavor is that good raw so for me if I were to make a salad it would only an ounce or two of Bidens in a large salad.

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38 nathan March 7, 2014 at 21:45

I made some pesto out of about 2 cups of the leaves of this plant. I chose leaves from the new growth at the top. Processed with olive oil, nuts, parmesan cheese and garlic. Very tasty.

Some information recommended against eating these leaves uncooked but I suffered no ill effects.

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39 Stephanie April 4, 2014 at 16:21

An herbalist friend of mine suggested I eat a couple tablespoons a couple of times per day for a lingering chronic cough (possibly from lung yin deficiency). Do you recommend cooking them? What is your experience with this usage? In situations w/ a tender tummy what symptoms would manifest with the raw plant? Thanks so much!

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40 Carolyn November 26, 2014 at 09:13

Coming from the New England where plantain is available a good portion of the year and then moving to FL where it disappears when all the insects are at their WORST, I was so happy when someone told me about Spanish needle. It works awesome on insect bites! With other herbal remedies, I’ve had to re-apply several times to take the itch and sting away, but if I chew this up and put it on right away, it even seems to prevent the little pus spot that fire ants usually leave. Actually I think it’s even better than plantain on stings and bites! With 4 small children I have had ample opportunity to try this remedy out ;)

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