Sometimes beauty is only skin deep


There are many plants in our landscape that we don’t want, at least in that location and we call them weeds. A major one in soybean and other crops is one from that same bean family. It’s called sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia).

Sicklepod is an annual that has paired yellow flowers, curved pods up to six inches long and foliage that looks like peanut leaves. Individual plant specimens can sometimes get more than six feet tall but are usually shorter. When mature, pods burst open releasing the seeds. They are dark brown, flattened, irregularly shaped and less than a quarter inch long.

Plants grow well in the coastal plain. Sicklepod is adapted to sandy soils with adequate drainage and fertility. They’re common on cropland and roadsides and they spread quickly. They spread primarily by seed, so cutting them prior to flowering can be effective. Keeping them from becoming established in the first place is best.

Beyond agricultural fields, sicklepod can also invade our vegetable and flower gardens. Someone brought me a sample of this a while ago and asked for its identification. He said it was a really pretty plant with bright yellow flowers, interesting foliage and showy pods. He wanted to know if he should save the seed and if I wanted some. I chuckled and politely declined.

It’s not the first time someone has noticed a plant they found attractive and wanted it for ornamental use. That’s one reason kudzu became established here. Though flowers are pretty, and foliage often forms an enticing contrast to ornamental plants, this one is best eliminated from your landscape.

Some people call it coffeeweed, because seeds from relatives of it were once roasted and used as a substitute for coffee. However, another common name is arsenic weed. That should throw up a red flag. Years ago, plants were used medicinally but they seldom are today.

Although young shoots can be eaten as cooked greens, they are bitter unless cooking water is changed a couple times. Other plant parts particularly seeds contain toxins called anthraquinones. My recommendation to foragers and herbalists is to remove this plant and destroy it whenever you see it growing.

Most livestock refuse to eat hay contaminated with sicklepod. They won’t graze live specimens either, so eliminating it from these areas is important. Wildlife don’t find it palatable and move to other things. Heavy infestations also lower crop yields. Furthermore, seeds are sometimes difficult to separate from soybeans, drastically lowering their market value.

Many broadleaf herbicides will kill sicklepod, so they are less of a problem in a crop like corn or wheat than they are in cotton or soybeans. Since they are in the same family as soybeans, many chemicals that will control sicklepod will harm soybeans. Roundup ready varieties have alleviated competition from sicklepod, but it’s still a nuisance.

Another reason to control sicklepod is that it harbors insects and diseases common to crop plants. Eliminating sicklepod can help lessen problems these other organisms cause. Sometimes pretty flowers and showy foliage are not sufficient reasons to let these invaders populate your landscape.

Thick mass of sicklepod

sicklepod sample close-up showing the curved pods

Dense stand of sicklepod with a little morning glory mixed in

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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3 Responses to Sometimes beauty is only skin deep

  1. tonytomeo says:

    When poke weed first arrived here, I heard about how it was edible, but could be very toxic if the shoots were too mature when harvested. You know, there are so many other things out that are safer to eat! I would need to be pretty hungry and unable to find anything better in order to go through the effort of cooking something like sicklepod.

    • tedmanzer says:

      Pokeweed seeds are very toxic, meaning you can’t eat the fruit. The young shoots make a good green, my mother-in-law’s favorite. It is not one of my favorites. I have no interest in fooling with sicklepod. either.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Precisely! I would rather get rid of pokeweed (if it every showed up withing the garden) and grow something that is not so potentially toxic, and also something more productive. Pokeweed provides such a small volume of greens relative to the space the mature plants occupy. I have used it only for ink, and I could get that from the weedy plants that have naturalized.

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