Animals and Plants of the Finger Lakes
Teasel: Our Prickly Relationship
Today, the town of Skaneateles is known for its quaint main street and its clear lake. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, it had a very different claim to fame.
It was the center of the U. S. teasel industry.
Teasels (Dipsacus spp.) are a prodigiously spiny Old World genus of flowering plant that can grow six or more feet high. On first glance, the teasel might be confused with the thistle, another tall, prickly non-native often found growing in sunny, disturbed areas. However, the teasel is easily identifiable by its unusually large (up to 4” long), oval flowerheads. Tiny flowers, ranging in hue from white to purple, initially open in a band around the middle of the inflorescence; as the first blossoms fade, the flowers directly above and below them come into bloom, creating two bands of color that travel in opposite directions. The seedheads often remain through the winter, creating starkly elegant patterns against the snow.
The teasel’s common name comes from an Old English word, tæsan, meaning “to pull [apart].” (It is the same root of our word “to tease”; composure frays under constant vexation, just as fiber does.) The bristly seedhead of the teasel has been used since time immemorial to card wool. In nineteenth-century woolen mills, teasel heads were used to brush the woven fabric (a process known as “raising the nap”) in order to create a soft, uniform surface. They are superior for this purpose — wire brushes often damage the fibers — but they wear out quickly, so that they must constantly be replaced. In the 1830s, an enterprising apothecary named Dr. James Snook realized that Skaneateles had the perfect climate and soil composition to grow this useful crop. He imported the European cultivated variety (D. sativus), and soon Skaneateles teasels were not only consumed domestically but also exported to Europe. The industrial use of teasels was eventually phased out in the mid-twentieth century when foreign competition forced the U. S. woolen industry to cut costs wherever it could.
The plant that was once the pride and joy of Skaneateles has become a thorn in the side of much of the U. S. and southern Canada. It has long since naturalized in many areas and forms intensely prickly and hardy monocultures that crowd out native vegetation. Cultivated teasel is now possibly extinct in the Finger Lakes, having been supplanted by two wild strains: the common teasel (“wild,” “fuller’s,” or “Indian” teasel, and confusingly identified as both D. fullonum and D. sylvestris) and the cut-leaved teasel (D. laciniatus). These plants were probably introduced to the continent by early settlers, and their seeds may also have been accidentally mixed with those bound for Skaneateles fields.
Once teasels become established in an area, they are hard to eradicate. Their basal leaves shade the ground so that nothing else can grow and their long, thick taproots make the plant resistant to both drought and physical removal. They can tolerate soil salinity (in the Finger Lakes, a side effect of salting roads in winter), and their seeds are not damaged by water; as a consequence, they have spread rapidly along both highways and waterways. Remarkably, this endlessly adaptable plant also appears to be partially carnivorous. The genus name Dipsacus is derived from the Greek for “thirst,” a reference to the cup-like leaf bases that fill with rainwater. These phytotelmata, as such tiny pools are known, may be designed to discourage aphids from climbing the stem. They often contain the bodies of unfortunate invertebrates, which the teasel seems to be able to digest, though the mechanism by which it does so is not yet known. A rich diet of insects greatly increases seed production, all the more impressive when one realizes that a single plant can produce over two thousand seeds.
Teasels are hard to eradicate from the landscape, not merely because of their astonishing ability to use every resource at their disposal, but also because many people find them both useful and beautiful. Their handsome flower and seedheads attract both birds and insects, and their popularity in floral arrangements has made them a common cemetery weed. The seedheads are sometimes used to make toys and decorations, and are still considered to be superior tools for cloth finishing. D. fullonum can even be used to create both blue and yellow dyes. Various parts of the plant are used in folk medicines; legend has it that the water from the leaf bases makes a very effective beauty treatment. Despite its noxiousness, it’s impossible not to find the teasel rather endearing: like the settlers who introduced it, it is hardy, a bit odd, and wonderfully stubborn — a very American weed, in its own way.