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Foxtail: Not Just a Nuisance

Another name for it is lance, but most of us know this plant as foxglove. It is an annual weed that grows everywhere from dry places to swamps. It is a nuisance for two reasons: it grows from the roots, so it is very difficult to get rid of it, and it is dangerous for the health of animals. It looks like a fox tail if you need help telling it apart. It has smooth grass-like leaves that are pointed at the tip. The plant is a dispersal, meaning it is a seed dispersal unit that depends on animals and things that pass by it to reproduce and renew itself. If you have one on you or an animal, don’t leave it there. The more muscle movement, the more it is pushed inward.

This plant blooms from May to June and all have a hard tip, which is called a callus. They have retro barbs that point away. There are many species with this plant and distinguishing the different species is not important unless you are a botanist. All have edible seeds, some more accessible than others. Although identification is difficult and not very important, it is interesting to know some of the main types and their relationship to countries and other grains. Hordeum is a species of foxtail, but it is known as wild barley. There is alopekouros, which is the grasses of the fox. And then there’s bromus madritensis, which is fox brome and is one of the easiest species to identify because they all have a reddish tint. Hordeum jubatum is foxtail barley, the family from which barley originated. The largest and most common, however, is the setaria and that is where most of the cultivated species are found. Did you say cultured? Yes, this nuisance of a plant is actually cultivated in some countries. The setaria species is foxtail millet and in other countries it is known as Italian millet, German millet or Chinese millet.

The fruits, seeds, grains or whatever you want to call them are edible on this plant. They are edible in the milk stage and in the grain stage. The milk stage is when they are green and the grain stage is when they are brown. They are green in the spring and start to turn black in the fall and will stick around even in the winter for you to pick. They are also used to repel animals such as rats. The seeds are somewhat hard and can be cooked. If you pull the leaves off the stem, there is an edible, white base and you can eat that part too. Some species can be used as hay. It is used medicinally for many things from pregnancy to bites. You can hang them upside down and use them as natural bird feeders.

To harvest this plant, you can burn it and use the dried seeds to grind into flour for bread or porridge. Over-dried seeds can be used as a coffee substitute. Or you can take the tail and put it on a newspaper to let it sit there until the seeds fall and you pick them off by hand. They are very nutty and delicious!

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