Family: Nyctaginaceae (Four O’Clock)
Synonym: Boerhavia caribaea
Aliases: red spiderling; red boerhavia; hogweed
This is a low-lying, sprawling perennial herb producing reaching stems which can exceed a meter in length. The stems are somewhat hairy and sticky with glands. The generally oval-shaped leaves are held on short petioles. They are wavy along the edges and may have reddish margins. The inflorescence is a small head of tiny frilly flowers, each just a few millimeters long. The flowers are often bright scarlet to red-violet in color but can be shades of pink, yellow, or white.
Native range is not certain but probably an area between the southern USA and northern South America. Current range includes most of the southern U.S. from California to Virginia, south to Mexico, the Caribbean and South America; also in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, and on some Pacific islands including the Hawaiian Islands.
Often found in sandy soil along drainages, washes, roadsides and disturbed areas. Roadsides, weedy areas, upper beaches, rocky slopes, gravelly outwash fans, arroyos in tropical scrub, arid grasslands, desert scrub, pinyon-juniper woodlands.
On this acre, it grows mostly among grasses: usually the naturalized Bermuda grass that grows around the house, and among some of the wild grasses in other areas.
Edible and Medicinal Uses
Used in traditional medicine in Africa, Mexico, South America and India.
The species is considered as a fodder for sheep. The roots are said to be medicinal and used as a purgative, febrifuge and an anthelmintic. The juice extract from the plant is used as a diuretic. The leaves can be used as a pot herb.
In Africa (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Namibia, Nigeria and Tanzania), the leaves and roots are widely used in traditional medicine. The plant is used to treat liver, loin, urinary and gastroenteric diseases, convulsions, prolapsed uterus, asthma, scabies, skin rashes, smallpox, oral candidiasis, apthous ulcers, toothache and pneumonia. The Kara and Kwego people in the lower Omo River Valley in Ethiopia use the leaves of the plant to prepare a powder that is used on external injuries and wounds. The roots specifically are used to treat jaundice, heart and kidney diseases and oedema.
In Mexico and South America (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), it is also used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, headaches, fever, liver disease and syphilis, and as a diuretic. It has been reported to have important antiprotozoal activity. Pharmacological studies have shown that extracts of the root stimulate smooth muscle contraction.
B. coccinea is eaten as a vegetable in Namibia and Nigeria, where it is also used as fodder for animals.
- Perennial herb, which can live for more than 10 years
- Self-pollinated, either via insect pollination or as the stamens make contact with the stigma as the flowers close.
- Blooms Mar-Nov, sometimes extending to winter
- Enemies are Asphondylia boerhaaviae (a gall midge), Megalorrhipida (a moth), and in Mexico, Cuscuta umbellale var. reflexa (plant).
- Adhesive seeds that stick to clothing and animals, thus aiding dispersal
- “Spiderling” is said to refer to “the long, slender, sticky peduncles that resemble a spider’s web”. I think the stems on a mature, sprawling plant make it look like a daddy longlegs spider.
- The genus of this species is named after Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738), an eighteenth century Dutch botanist, humanist and physician.
In some locations and scenarios this plant is considered “invasive”. I can’t agree with this perspective. I believe that nature operates far more intelligently than we are currently able to grasp, and that we have yet to gain a complete understanding of how the natural world works. All around me I see people fighting against nature—cutting, slashing, burning and poisoning anything that gets in the way—accusing plants of being the problem, not realizing that we are the ones causing problems. This is why I make no attempt to inhibit or destroy any of the hundreds of species that are native or naturalized and growing wild here. I let them all grow and go to seed and observe how some plants seem to be taking over and then after a year or two they back off and something else thrives for awhile. It’s always changing with no single plant taking over completely or permanently. I believe that nature is intelligent enough to balance itself out, that whatever is naturally growing and thriving is what is best for the soil and the ecosystem at that particular time and that it can and will change if and when a change is needed in order to regain or maintain proper healthy balance. I don’t believe we are capable of improving on nature’s system and that the best thing we can do is to innovate ways to work with it rather than against it.
At the time of this posting in 2018–six years after these photos were taken–the Scarlett Spiderling, although strong and robust, has not taken over the property.
I’m glad to learn that yet another of the wild plants growing on our property is edible. I ate a leaf raw the other day and understood why it was referred to as a “pot herb”. Although it was mild in taste, the underside of the leaf left a gritty texture in my mouth. I assume that the cooking would eliminate that.
I look forward to trying it in dishes like soups, sautés and perhaps steamed.