I love autumn. The fields are full of wildflowers and they are often showier than their spring counterparts. It may be because I prefer the colors of autumn; golds, russets, reds, purple and amber that I love this season. It seems that Mother Nature is using the most vibrant colors in her box of crayons during this time.
One of the most common of the autumn wildflowers and also one of the showiest is Bidens aristosa, also known as the tickseed sunflower, or beggarticks. Here in west Kentucky we also call them beggar lice. That's not a very endearing name and while the plant has no connection to actual lice, if you've ever walked through a patch after the flowers have faded, you get a quick lesson as to why we call them that.
Once the pretty little yellow blossoms are gone, the seeds have a unique way of hitchhiking to new destinations. Each seed has two little curved 'horns' at the tip that act just like Velcro. They attach themselves to clothing, animal fur, leaves and just about anything that rubs up against the plant. A hiker can come home with hundreds of seeds of this tough little annual stuck to socks, shoelaces, pants, jackets or shirts. Cattle, dogs, cats, coyotes, rabbits and other animals disperse the seeds that stick to their fur. This plant can scatter its children far and wide via this method and even though it is a North American native, it is on a number of noxious weed lists for several states. (Kentucky being one of these)
Tickseed sunflowers tend to grow in disturbed ground and love the edges of agricultural fields. They prefer damp, sunny areas, but can tolerate some shade and drought. These annual plants tend to form large colonies as they reseed with abandon and can often be seen along roadways and in fallow fields. Farmers don't like them because they tend to invade crop fields and pastures. Cattle won't graze them, so the plants are able to reach maturity, bloom and produce seeds that result in even more plants.
The cheerful yellow flowers cover the Bidens aristosa in masses and the mature plant can reach a height of four feet, although smaller ones at about two feet are more common. The flowers are a nectar and pollen source for late season bees and butterflies and several use the plant as a host for their caterpillars as well. This beggarticks light up the fencerows each autumn and the golden color is perfect alongside the crimson sumac and orange sassafras.
The plant and seed heads were once used as a natural dye, producing shades of brown and orange, while Native Americans used it as a fever reducer, diuretic, snakebite remedy and vermifuge. It also contains a weak form of caffeine although I think I would rather have my coffee given its other, less savory uses.
If you plan to use it in the garden, make sure it has room enough to spread and be prepared for seedlings popping up wherever they please. However, they are easy to pull and transplant easily. Tickseed sunflowers would make a great addition to a wildlife garden and would do well along the edge of a pasture pond or butterfly habitat. They are a tough little flower that makes itself at home just about everywhere.