Wild ticktrefoil is the gift that keeps on giving.
Illustration by Robert Meganck
Talk about freeloaders! Hanging out in fields and at roadsides, ticktrefoil is a plant that has mastered the business of outsourcing, turning over the job of distributing its seeds to any passerby, human or animal. You’ve taken that job if you’ve ever emerged from an afternoon stroll in nature to find your clothes sporting a liberal harvest of flat, green seed pods. You’ve known the vexation if you’ve subsequently spent long minutes prying those seed pods loose from where they’ve stuck themselves tenaciously to socks and pants and scarves and coat sleeves.
Ticktrefoil (genus desmodium in the Latin, and sometimes written as tick-trefoil, with or without the hyphen) is not one, but in fact many species, all actually of the pea/legume/bean family. And when I say “many,” what I mean is—a lot. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plants database lists 21 different species of ticktrefoil found in Virginia alone—out of dozens of North American species—including hoary ticktrefoil, Fernald’s ticktrefoil, showy ticktrefoil, hairy small-leaf ticktrefoil, smooth small-leaf ticktrefoil, stiff ticktrefoil, naked flower ticktrefoil, sand ticktrefoil, cream ticktrefoil and, my favorite name among all of them, perplexed ticktrefoil.
Perhaps “perplexing,” however, would be more the mot juste here. “This is a difficult genus,” advises the website for the Herbarium at the University of Michigan, because even for the kinds of people who know their way around a plant, “a number of characteristics often [have] to be considered in order to make a sure identification of species.” They’re hard to tell apart, in other words, but what all the species have in common are small pinkish, whitish or purplish flowers and those pesky pods, nature’s bedazzlers.
Accurately speaking, these pods are, in fact, fruits, known as “loments,” and if you look up “loment,” chances are the example you’ll be offered is ticktrefoil. The ticktrefoil loment is a “dry indehiscent” fruit—which is to say, a fruit that doesn’t split open after ripening—that is segmented in such a way that the loment easily breaks apart into individual triangularly shaped segments, each containing one small legume. While you are painstakingly picking each of these individual segments off, say, your socks, you can take the trouble to split one open to observe for yourself the tiny, glossy bean inside.
I’ve had a couple of ticktrefoil plants growing for years beside my shed where I park my car, although I didn’t know what they were, and every year long before they had bloomed I had hacked them back, thinking them weeds. This year, out of some mix of apathy and curiosity, I didn’t cut them back, wondering what they would grow into. In late summer, the small pink blossoms appeared, and I thought I’d been duly rewarded for my “curiapathy.” What a lovely plant, I thought.
Then came the fall, and one morning after rushing off to an appointment, I arrived only to find that the leg of my soberly professional black pants had acquired a bumper crop of bright-green accents. And so it went all fall, until it seemed every item of clothing I’d worn, every towel I’d taken to the gym, my computer bag, the carpet in my office, the sheets in my bed—everywhere there were ticktrefoil seeds. Who would have thought that so scraggly a pair of plants (they were barely two feet tall) could have kept giving and giving with such limitless generosity? I am fairly certain that, what with pulling those loments off myself here, there and everywhere over the course of the entire fall, I may have singlehandedly—or leggedly—reseeded half the state with ticktrefoil.
The loments are covered with something like a natural Velcro, which is why they do such a good job of sticking so well. In fact, “stick-tight” is one colloquial name for the plant (another is the less charming “beggar’s lice”). People do not necessarily love ticktrefoil, and those sticky loments are a good part of the reason why.
Yet the ticktrefoil is a beneficial plant, and various species are used around the world as animal fodder, as “green manure” because they do a good job of fixing nitrogen in the soil, and as natural insect repellants and weed suppressors. You can find online both careful advice on how to plant, tend and nurture your ticktrefoil, and exasperated laments to the tune of “how do I get these annoying plants out of my garden?”
And these and other of life’s mysteries and contemplations you will have ample leisure to ponder the next time you take a walk in an autumn field and spend a subsequent chunk of your day pulling off your wooly socks—one by one by one—the dry, indehiscent loment segments of the ticktrefoil plant.