Sunday, March 8, 2015

Plant Story--redstem stork's bill, Erodium cicutarium--early to flower!

On January 29, I found a plant flowering in northern Colorado at 5000' elevation--when it should be winter but there had been a warm spell. That plant was Erodium cicutarium, redstem stork's bill. It is a geranium relative from around the Mediterranean in Europe (family Geraniaceae).

Erodium cicutarium, redstem filaree
Erodium cicutarium, redstem stork's bill, flowering in January in Colorado

Redstem stork's bill is believed to be one of the very earliest European plants to come to North America. It was apparently introduced to California by Spanish explorers in the early 1700s and spread quickly from there. Today it has an impressive range (USDA distribution map).

I've found redstem stork's bill hard to look up in my books because it goes by common names from redstem stork's bill (USDA choice), redstem filaree, filaree, common crane's bill, crane's bill, heron's bill, alfilaria, alfilarea, pin clover, pin grass and common crowfoot and a lot of weed books seem to have the plants in alphabetic order by common name and no scientific name index. The little booklet, Noxious Weeds of Colorado, for example, has it under r in the table of contents.

redstem filaree plants in January 2015, northern Colorado
redstem filaree plants in January 2015, northern Colorado

In Colorado and across the north, it is a winter annual. The seeds of winter annuals germinate in the fall. The plant grows for as long as conditions permit in the fall and then starts growing again early in the spring, developing and disbursing seeds almost before other plants are growing. Thus, redstem filaree is one of the earliest plants to flower in Colorado, though the books mostly say "flowers March to April" not January.

redstem filaree plants in January 2015, northern Colorado
redstem stork's bill plants in January 2015, northern Colorado

It is listed as a Class C Noxious Weed in Colorado, which means the state thinks local governments are likely to wish to control it. The problem is that it germinates early and so is able to outcompete desirable plants and crops by taking up the available water and/or intercepting the sunlight. Early plants are tolerated by agriculture if they are uncommon, it is the ones that become abundant are a problem. Redstem stork's bill can do that, become very abundant in a field.

redstem filaree plants in January 2015, northern Colorado
redstem filaree plants in January 2015, northern Colorado

Redstem filaree is edible. All of it. Eat it raw in salads. Eat it cooked like spinach. Gathering it early in the spring is recommended: it sounds like it will gets so tough only sustained boiling to makes it enjoyable. (See Eat the Weeds). 

The specific epithet of redstem stork's bill was chosen for the similarity of the leaves to poison hemlock leaves. Poison hemlock is Cicuta maculatum, redstem stork's bill is Erodium cicutarium. They are not related and have numerous differences. Redstem stork's bill is hairy, though that is hard to tell that in my photos. Poison hemlock is not hairy. Redstem stork's bill has pink flowers and "stork's bill" fruits, poison hemlock has white flowers in umbels. (Link to post on hemlock). Redstem stork's bill starts growing much earlier in the year than poison hemlock. However, be very sure of your identification for every leaf if you are going to eat it, poison hemlock is very poisonous.

Erodium cicutarium, redstem filaree
Erodium cucitaria, redstem stork's bill

Redstem stork's bill is reported to contain an antidote to strychnine but I can't find a reference that indicates how that was demonstrated. Furthermore a search on "strychnine antidote" repeatedly reports "there are no antidotes to strychnine" so I don't recommend redstem stork's bill for treating strychnine poisoning. (Paragraph on strychnine under the medicinal plants picture Mallora blog).

Rangeland sources all list redstem stork's bill as important food source for animals from cattle to desert tortoises (link). Partly because it can be so abundant. Even when plants are dry--by May in Arizona--it still has forage value. 
Erodium cicutarium showing mature leaves and seed pods

There are a few species of Erodium native to North America and other erodiums have been introduced from elsewhere (link to USDA maps click on SHOW ALL in upper right). The seed pods, seen in the photo above, make it easy to recognize a plant as a stork's bill/crane's bill/ filaree, genus Erodium.

And all around the world you can find redstem filaree, Erodium cicutarium, growing like it does in Colorado, at the start of the growing season on open and disturbed sites.  (link) 

A widespread, early spring, rather inconspicuous plant with a pretty flower, redstem stork's bill is sometimes a threat to agriculture but more often a boon to wildlife.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

Deane, Greeen,. 2013. Stork's bill, crane's bill Eat the Weeds accessed 1/31/15
Discover Life website. Erodium cicutarium (L.) L'Her. ex Alton Link lots of photos. Accessed 1/31/15
Foster, S. and J. A. Duke. 1990. Peterson Field Guides: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. Houghton Mifflin Co., NY.
Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible native plants of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 
Kirk, D. R. 1975. Wild edible plants of western North America. Naturegraph Publishers, Happy Camp, CA. 
Stubbendieck, J., S. L. Hatch and K. J. Hirsch. 1986. North American range plants. 3rd ed. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

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