They say that here in PoV country we don’t have real seasons—that the leaves on our trees go from green to brown and fallen with only a few moments, if we’re lucky, of red and yellow in between. People in Vermont, however, claim to enjoy their postcard-ready multi-color autumns with leaves showing the entire red-yellow spectrum before they all fall in winter. Of course, those people live in a state that’s shaped like the butchered hind quarters of a cow, but I digress: After all, perhaps we Louisiana boot socks should not cast aspersions about state shapes.
Instead, I want to have a polite conversation about seasons in terms of wildflowers. Not so much the tiny purples or whites clustered here and there, and not so much the common clovers or buttercups. Specifically, I want to discuss the massive populations of stalky yellow wildflowers that have been overtaking our roadsides and open fields for the past month.
And you know which ones I’m talking about. They fill canal bottoms, grow along the sculpted ruts of cane fields, and sometimes cover entire prairies, dramatically contrasting their yellowy blooms with nearby green fields and trees. These flowers are literally legendary, providing at least one explanation for the name of my hometown—Golden Meadow.
But they’re not golden rods. Nor are they dandelions, although dandelions have a yellow flower and petal head just like these legends. In France, dandelions are known by a particular hyphenated name, coined after the fact that dandelion leaves have diuretic properties that may catch partakers off-guard when sleeping. It’s a remarkable part of our history and culture that the mother French for “dandelion” has crossed generations as well as an ocean to find itself describing the predominant yellow wildflower growing here in the Cajun bayou lands.
My mother would never forgive me for speaking—much less writing—the common name of this fast-growing yellow diuretic wildflower. And so, I will tell you, perhaps for the first time, that the real name of our resident, non-dandelion wildflower is not the half-giggled term we’ve inherited from mother France. Rather, it is known scientifically as Pakera glabella and more commonly referred to as “butterweed.”
Butterweed is usually the first blooming wildflower in PoV country. The butterweed is closely related to the western tansy ragwort but with a much better name. Not even a plant wants to be called “tansy” or “ragwort.” Although butterweed can easily take over acres of pasture, it’s better to keep the cows and other grazers away, as it can be toxic to livestock. But, unfortunately, it’s not toxic to lovebugs, as we’ll see firsthand this month. A butterweed petal head can burst to reveal anywhere between 10 and 15 florets—which are really “petals” but small enough to earn a fancy name. Last month I pulled a cluster from a canal near my house and counted 13 florets on the petal head of each stalk. This observation completely destroys the lesson my papère once taught me that “There’s no ting made in the Bible dat has tirteen because tirteen is the unlucky number.”
Despite its giggled notoriety, butterweed is probably the most economically important wildflower in Louisiana. Not only does it attract butterflies and bees that in turn help pollenate our trees and crops, but it also encourages business activity, like when you need to get the coating of yellow powder off your car or out of your deep sinuses. Even more so, when the massive butterweed population growing everywhere from the side of your driveway to bayou and river basins across the state decides to die, the flower stalks fall, slowly decompose, and provide munchies for our favorite 10-legged (not 13-) Zatarain’s seasonee—namely crawfish.
Thus even if your neighborhood is beyond its yellow stage this month, know that this legendary yellow wildflower remains hard at work. And, if you happen to drink plenty of fluids at your next crawfish boil this month, be forewarned about the giggly flower legend before turning the lights out for the evening. And then condemn it by their real name.