This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is the diverse and confusing Erigeron genus. Although there are many distinct species of plants in this genus, hailing from different continents, and consisting of annuals, biennials, and perennials, they all look very similar, have similar edible and medicinal uses, and all go by the same common name – Fleabane.
We mentioned Fleabane a few months ago when we featured Daisies, as it’s the closest mimic to daisies you’ll see in the meadows and pastures of the Eastern Woodlands. Not surprisingly, they’re closely related. Both are members of the Aster family, which, if you’ve been following #WildEdibleWednesday for any length of time, you’ll know has figured prominently in our medicinal plant apothecary. Asters include the vast majority of native wildflowers, and most members of the family have very similar edible and medicinal properties.
The flower in the photo is Common Fleabane (E. philadelphicus), although Southern or Oakleaf Fleabane (E. quercifolia) is also widespread in North Georgia. Members of the Erigeron genus are native to wide swaths of the world, and are common throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. North America has the greatest diversity of native Erigeron species, however. Common Fleabane is a biennial or short-lived perennial that grows as a basal rosette of leaves during most of the year. It is semi-evergreen, so if you know what to look for, it can be a valuable winter wild edible. In the spring, beginning in early April around here, it sends up a stalk of flowers 2’-3’ tall. Its leaves are lanceolate, 2-3” long, and prolifically spaced alternating up the length of its flower stem. The stems are round, and covered with fine hairs. If you’re looking at Southern/Oakleaf Fleabane, its leaves will be larger and lobed like an oak leaf. Otherwise, both plants look very similar. Fleabane’s most identifiable trait is its flowers. They’re tiny, about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. They have delicate, floss-like petals that look kind of fuzzy. This characteristic and the size of the blooms is what differentiates them from daisies. Those blooms can be a pure white (common in early season), white tinged with pink, (common later in the summer), pink, purple, or even yellow, all with yellow centers. Fleabane is a meadow wildflower. You may find it in extremely open woods, but for the most part, it lives in open, sunny areas places like unkempt pastures and yards, roadsides, abandoned and waste areas, stream banks, and woodland clearings.
Fleabane is a wild edible, but not a “wild preferable.” Its leaves can be eaten raw as a salad green or cooked as a potherb, but are very hairy. Cooking helps mitigate this but doesn’t always do away with it entirely, especially with old, tough, late-season leaves. The flavor isn’t bad – fleabane leaves have a mild, grassy flavor similar to spinach. Like most any other dark, leafy green, they’re high in calcium, magnesium, manganese, and vitamins A, C, and K.
Like other Asters, fleabane’s primary use is as a medicinal plant. The Cherokee made the heaviest use of it. The plant has powerful astringent properties, and they utilized an infusion of it as an internal coagulant to treat bleeding ulcers, excessive menstruation, and other chronic internal hemorrhage. It has also been used as a cough suppressant, febrifuge, and expectorant. A salve made from the root can be used to treat open sores. Other tribes such as the Meskwaki and Ojibway had an interesting use for it: They’d dry and powder the flowers and snort it like a snuff to induce sneezing in order to clear clogged sinuses. Not sure I’d want to try that one. A smoke made from burning the dried flowers was also said to relieve head colds.
If you’re wondering where the name “Fleabane” came from, it’s just like it sounds. The European species of this plant (E. annus) has been used since ancient times in the British Isles to repel fleas from houses, bedding, clothing, and people. Traditionally, the plant was dried and burned in a smoke pot or other device and the infested area was “smoked out.” Does it work? Well, yes. But whether it works because of some special qualities of the fleabane, or just because all bugs everywhere hate smoke, is still up for debate. But whether it was the flower specifically or just the smoke, the name stuck, and fleabane became a traditional home decoration. And all those paintings, books, and movies depicting pretty medieval peasant girls with a sprig of the daisy-like flowers tucked behind their ear or woven into crown? They were trying to keep fleas out of their hair, which was a constant problem in the Middle Ages. Attractive, right? Sometimes the good ol’ days weren’t that great.
Anyone out there have any experience with Fleabane? Has anyone actually used it to repel fleas? Tell us in the comments!