But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
–William Shakespeare, King Henry V, act 5
The Duke of Burgundy came up with a good metaphor for the situation in France, during a brief period of relative peace with England, following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The brutal Hundred Years’ War would ravage France for another 40 years or so…and even the landscape was starting to look bad: the neglected fields and meadows were full of weeds, nettles, and thistles.
Now, a “kecksie” is an old word most often used for various rough, stickery weeds, and brings to mind thistles, briers and brambly interlopers. Being coarse and prickly, our Mystery Plant would be a good example, although it is not related to thistles so much as it is to garden scabiosa.
This unmistakable plant is native to Europe and Asia. It is a true biennial species, in that it takes two growing seasons for it to bloom. Its first year, after sprouting, is spent in developing a cluster or rosette of basal leaves. The branching flowering stem develops the second year, and sometimes reaches 6′ tall. The stems are quite prickly, and so are the sword-shaped leaves, which occur in pairs up and down the stem. The flowers are very small, with a purple or pale pink, tubular corolla. Several hundred flowers will be congested into a tight head, almost a cone…which can be 4-5″ long, and equipped with long, prickly spines at the bottom. In the summer, the flowers begin blooming at the mid-level of the head, and open progressively in two directions, toward the top, and toward the base. Bees and butterflies love the flowers, and after they fade and the plants dry, the prickly cones remain. In the fall and winter, the dried-up plants make dramatic accents on the landscape, and in fact, the stems are prized for floral arrangements.
This kecksie is widely scattered around the world, including Australia and North America, after its original introduction. In fact, the dried seed heads were once used for combing (or “teasing”) wool, and so the plants were, for a while, intentionally –and now regrettably– cultivated. In the Southeast, it is most likely to be seen from the Ohio River valley down through the Appalachians, usually at relatively high elevations, often in disturbed lots. It is a weed, though, and is sometimes troublesome, forming large patches in fields and along roadsides, and potentially hogging the habitat for native species. Because it is so prickly, it’s hard to deal with, and even the cows won’t eat it. The plants make thousands of tiny, one-seeded nutlets, too, and they don’t have much trouble being spread around.
It’s a beautiful weed, though. If you do have in mind bringing some home for your living room, you’ll need some clippers. And gloves.