Spanish Needle Salad Anyone?

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)
Bidens alba

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

Bidens spp. are abundant “pest” weeds in Florida and indeed all over the world. There are more than 40 native species in the United States alone and over 230 worldwide. These weedy plants thrive in warm climates and have traditions of medicinal and edible use wherever they are found. The botanical name, which describes the shape of the fruit (seed) comes from the Latin “bis” meaning two and “dens” meaning tooth. The bane of any hiker, Bidens is zoochorous, that is, it evolved to hitchhike on the fur of animals (and our socks).

The dried leaves of various species have been used as a tobacco substitute, called “Fakahatchee Gold,” according to Daniel Austin in Florida Ethnobotany. Medicinal uses included treatment for colds and flu, hepatitis, bacterial infections, inflammation, and urinary tract infections. The Cherokee people used B. bipinnata to expel worms and chewed on the leaves to soothe a sore throat. In Florida the Seminole people used Bidens species, probably B. mitis, according to Austin, for a variety of complaints including headaches, high fever, and diarrhea.

B. pilosa, which is not native but is often confused (and in some texts synonymous) with B. alba, reportedly has constituents that can depress the central nervous system and lower blood sugar. Because Bidens species seem to contain an amazing number of chemicals with biological activity, various species are the subjects of ongoing research, including use as an antimalarial drug (B. pilosa). Bidens species contain some powerful chemical constituents and should not be used medicinally without the advice of a skilled herbalist or traditional healer. Observers note that Bidens is left alone by most insects save the dainty sulphur (Nathalis iole), which may absorb some of the potent compounds to discourage its own predators.

However, occasional snacking on Bidens is a fine idea. The flowers and tender young leaves and of B. alba can be added to salads, and the more mature leaves can be boiled or steamed as a pot herb. (Note that the yellow centers are coarse and some people prefer to pluck the petals for salads.) A mild tea can be made from the flowers, which purportedly also make an interesting wine.


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