Perspective: A Nettlesome Plant With The Name It Deserves

Jan 7, 2021

If you like to traipse in the woods, or if you have a child or a dog that sometimes bounds off the trail, you too have been plagued by a pox known as beggar’s lice. You might know this nuisance plant by an alias:  sticktight, or stickseed. My wife Breja, who hails from Iowa, calls them simply weed seeds. She is the only one in my family who knows how to rid clothing of them.

When a sprig leaps from the understory to adhere to your pants or your hat, or your hair, the joy of the traipse vanishes at once. Pull at the stem and the woody part comes neatly away, leaving the little nutlets arrayed on your clothing forever. To remove I recommend: burning, composting, or calling for Breja.

You can tell that the nineteenth-century poet/botanist who coined the term, whoever she was, had a special disdain for this plant. Lice aren’t nearly wicked enough. These are the lice of beggars.

But even the most nettlesome characters have virtues. Don’t they? I decided to read up on beggar’s lice. Sure enough. According to ethnobotanists, Native Americans put this plant to good use. They crushed its roots and mixed it with bear oil to treat skin cancer. They seeped its leaves into tea to improve memory. They even used the plant as a love medicine. Imagine.

What I hate about the plant, I love about its name. Sometimes the phrase will spring from the forest of language in my brain, and I’ll find it suddenly on my lips. Beggar’s lice. It’s a name at once clever, utilitarian and euphonic. Once you’ve heard it, it sticks with you always.

I’m Chris Fink and that’s my perspective