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Get the latest news, events, and publications about Finger Lakes conservation when you subscribe to our free email newsletter, The Living Land. Teasels (Dipsacus spp.) are a prodigiously spiny Old World genus of flowering plant that can grow six or more feet high.
The plant that was once the pride and joy of Skaneateles has become a thorn in the side of much of the U. 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.
This article by Jacqueline Stuhmiller originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of our quarterly print newsletter, The Land Steward.
Conserving the forests, farmlands, gorges, and shorelines of the Finger Lakes region for over 25 years.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, it had a very different claim to fame.
On first glance, the teasel might be confused with the thistle, another tall, prickly non-native often found growing in sunny, disturbed areas. 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.
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.

Their handsome flower- and seedheads attract both birds and insects, and their popularity in floral arrangements has made them a common cemetery weed. However, the teasel is easily identifiable by its unusually large (up to 4” long), oval flowerheads. They are superior for this purpose––wire brushes often damage the fibers––but they wear out quickly, so that they must constantly be replaced.
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. The seedheads are sometimes used to make toys and decorations, and are still considered to be superior tools for cloth finishing.
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. It has long since naturalized in many areas and forms intensely prickly and hardy monocultures that crowd out native vegetation.
The seedheads often remain through the winter, creating starkly elegant patterns against the snow.
James Snook realized that Skaneateles had the perfect climate and soil composition to grow this useful crop. 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.

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. 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.
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. 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. The industrial use of teasels was eventually phased out in the mid-twentieth century when foreign competition forced the U. 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.
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.

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