A plant story waiting to be told

Single leaf of giant radweed
Single leaf of giant radweed

If you only knew how this story has been nagging me. I have been looking for the photos on and off for a few months now. Photographers, I admit that I haven’t kept up with filing photos in a file system on the computer. Cindy Dyer, Dyer Design, told me she sorts though her photos daily and deletes those she doesn’t want and files the others in folders. It was this past summer when I saw a tall plant with multiple shaped leaves growing in my garden on the back side of the house. I would look out the window and say to myself, “What is that?” Do you notice the serrated leaves? They look like tiny teeth.

On close examination it had a familiar seed head. The leaves were unique in different shapes such as a single leaf and sometimes three to five lobes. I absolutely couldn’t identify the plant using any of my extensive wildflower plant books. It isn’t often than I am stumped by a plant.

Five lobes leaf
Five lobes leaf

I emailed a knowledgeable instructor at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Hayward, WI. I had studied natural resources with him.  Larry Baker has an intimate knowledge of plants and I figured if anyone knew this plant, he would.

The seed head was green. We went back and forth a few times until Larry looked up the plant key identification. I should have gone here but I didn’t. I hope he doesn’t think I am lazy. A surprise email came that asked, “Could it be Giant Ragweed?” I could have blushed because I then realized I did recognize the seed head. Yes indeed, it was this plant. The Latin name is Ambrosia trifida and the noxious weed is also known as Buffaloweed.

Great ragweed seed head. Great ragweed seed head.

How did it come to be living in my native wildflower garden? I have no idea how it got there. The plant prefers fertile moist soils. I had mulched this area with garden leaf compost a few years ago. The soil was dark and moist. Beyond the drip line of my home, all the water slopes downwards through a wood chip filter and throughout the garden bed. It must have been a male plant because the flowers were abundant in spike like clusters located on the tips of branches and stems. Female flowers are few without petals located in the axils of the upper leaves.

Leaves are opposite, large and slightly hairy, entire, or palmately cleft into 3 or occasionally 5 lobes. The lobes are ovate-lanceolate and serrated. I was able to look up the plant afterwards in a book that Ed, an elder friend, gave me a few years back. I never dreamed I would be identifying noxious weeds from this source but as you can see, I am. My books are my refuge.

Source: U.S. Department of agriculture, Selected Weeds of the United States, 1970.


  1. Jay says:

    I had this confused with sassafras for a while, even though the overall morphology and weedlike distribution didn’t make sense. It has the same three leaf types, all on the same plant, which is often cited as diagnostic of sassafras. It wasn’t until the seed heads erupted that it was obvious it was ragweed. Needless to say, I was quite dissapointed.


  2. Hi Jay, I know how you feel. I am sure the great ragweed seed pods were a sorry disappointment to you. Once an elder friend of mine in Upstate New York asked that I go out and look for sassafras leaves. She really wanted to make a cup of sassafras tea. She told me the general area to look in order to find the tree and what the leaves looked like. I did go out looking. Lo and behold, I was so happy to find the mitten and glove shaped leaves to take back to her. My friend, Marietta Davis could no longer walk outside. She was just a neat friend being an artist her whole life. She taught art at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, many years ago. Thanks for visiting Jay. Happy foraging.


  3. Doug says:

    I pulled this up yesterday after smelling a leaf and realizing it was a ragweed so the seeds would not spread.
    I had left it growing under bird feeder thinking it might be a hibiscus but then the seeds formed and ragweed came to mind. Like your story. It got about 4ft. Next to a sunflower and my Jerusalem artichokes. Never seen one before. Let it trick me for a month.

    Liked by 1 person

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