Fiddleneck – What Good Is It?

Amsinckia cluster             A park ranger was showing native plants to a group of visitors.  She singled out one rather non-descript flower in particular, and it could easily have been a fiddleneck.   One of the visitors innocently asked, “What is it good for?”                                                              The ranger explained how both native and non-native bees gather nectar from this plant.  The leaves of the same plant are a favorite food for the larvae of several attractive butterflies.  And the plant is frequented by birds for their seeds, and by insects which many birds also rely on for their food.                                                                                                        Unimpressed, the visitor replied, “Yes, but what is it good for?”Fiddle head                                            Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), also called “rancher’s fireweed”, is not one of the California native plants that you expect to find in a native plant nursery.  Yet, it is one of the very first wildflowers that appear in the Spring, and it may appear in great abundance even in mid-winter, like currently at the south end of the Granada Native Garden.                                 The fiddleneck is so named because the flower stem, bearing many small flowers, curls over at the top like the head of a fiddle.  It is in the same botanical family as borage (Boraginaceae), an often-cultivated garden plant.  (Note:  “Fiddleneck” is a flowering plant; fiddleheads are the young shoots of some ferns, which are similarly shaped but are not flowering plants.)

In the Interest of Full Disclosure …                                                                                             First, let it be frankly acknowledged that, in some circles, fiddleneck is considered a weed.  One easy definition of a weed is, “something that grows where you want something else to grow”.  In agronomics (a branch of agriculture dealing with crop fields, pastures and orchards), fiddleneck causes problems.  A small growth of fiddleneck rapidly spreads over a large area in just a few years, especially in disturbed, open or unmanaged places.  The leaves are hairy and possess cystoliths, which are plant cells that contain deposits of calcium carbonate (chalk) and silicon dioxide (sand) taken up from the soil.  These deposits serve the plant well as they may serve as a kind of protection from leaf-eating insects or other animals.  They are visible as bumps on the leaf surface.  But the hairs can also induce itching and rash in some individuals, especially in anyone who has occasion to come into contact with the plants regularly.  (Note:  Click on the photos below to enlarge them and better view the leaf hairs and bumps.)

Leaf showing cystoliths

Leaf showing cystoliths

Leaves & stem showing hairs.

Leaves & stem showing hairs.

                                    The seeds and foliage are poisonous to livestock when ingested in quantity, because they contain toxic alkaloids (intermedine and lycopsamine) and high concentrations of nitrates.  Poisonings occur when livestock consume contaminated grain or feed.        

So Really, “What Good Is It?”                                                                                                      Fiddleneck might not be very good for humans, nor for our imported livestock which didn’t evolve as natives in this landscape anyway.                                                                  But the Native Americans who prospered for centuries while being dependent for their existence on the plants that grew around them, the shoots, seeds and leaves of the abundant fiddleneck were used as food.  A pinole (an ancient “power food” prepared from ground and toasted seeds and used as an ingredient in cereals, baked goods, tortillas, and beverages), made by the Chumash and other Indians, was described by the Spanish settlers as having “good flavor and pretty color”.   The plant also had some limited medicinal uses.                                                                                                                  Lawrence's goldfinch              Fiddleneck seeds are the favorite food of Lawrence’s goldfinch (Carduelis lawrencei), and are of special value to honey bees which in turn pollinate many of the crops we depend on for our food.  The leaves are used as food by the larvae of the popular painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui).                                   But aside from Painted ladytheir use to wildlife, fiddleneck stems and leaves are soft and juicy, and they rot easily when turned under as green compost.  This, together with its ability to spread widely and rapidly, makes fiddleneck a potentially useful soil amendment for the home gardener.                                                           So, if you want to know “what good it is”, you need to ask the birds, bees and butterflies, and home gardeners who have learned to value it to improve their garden soil.

Congratulations to Malvika & Meenakshi !                                                                     Meenakshi & Malvika           Two Granada High School students and Granada Native Garden Volunteer Worker Bees, Meenakshi and Malvika, recently won the App Challenge sponsored by Congressman Eric Swalwell.  After “coding like crazy” all weekend, the sisters created an app that could help people (especially stressed-out high school and college students!) deal with negative emotions and convert them into positive messages.  Meenakshi reports that they are looking forward to getting the app on the App Store soon.

Stumpy’s Tree Service Becomes a GNG Partner                                                 Stumpy's            Stumpy’s Tree Service recently delivered a large load of mulch to the Granada Native Garden, to be used in dressing parts of the Garden, suppressing weed growth, and helping to mitigate a mud problem at the Garden entrance.  Stumpy’s joins the Alden Lane Nursery in helping the GNG create a native plant garden that Livermore can be proud of, and lead to an increased appreciation of native plants in the California environ- ment and home landscapes.ALN CreditQuote du Jour                                                                                                                               “Plants are as close to biological miracles as a scientist could dare admit.  After all, they allow us and nearly every other species to eat sunlight, by creating the nourishment that drives food webs on this planet.  As if that weren’t enough, plants also produce oxygen, build topsoil and hold it in place, prevent floods, sequester carbon dioxide, buffer extreme weather, and clean our water.”
                                                 – Douglas Tallamy, in the New York Times, March 11, 2015

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