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BACKYARD HORTICULTURE: Digitaria, Crabgrass - Imported by U.S. government in 1849?

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:27 pm

The genus Digitaria, a member of the grass family, contains many species of crabgrass all over the world. But according to Texas A&M University, “Two species of crabgrass are found throughout the semi-tropical and temperate zones of the U.S. - smooth crabgrass (Digitaria ischaemum) and hairy crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). Both are annual grasses that emerge in early to mid-spring and are killed by the first frost in fall.” The article is “Crabgrass” at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.

Digitaria is from a word meaning fingers, digits. It refers to the multiple stems that stick out. The common name, crabgrass, also refers to how the plant grows. The leaves can be up to 1/2-inch wide and 1/3- to 1-inch long. They form a rosette with a diameter of about 12 inches, resembling a crab. Sanguinalis refers to blood because as crabgrass gets older, the stem can take on streaks of red to purple. I’m not sure about the etymology of Ischaemum. Some say it refers to blood and others say it has to do with the arrangement of its seeds.

The article “Biology and Management of Crabgrass” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, ag.umass.edu, shows why the plant can be a problem. “Crabgrass reproduces by seeds and it has a prolific tillering or branching habit. A single plant is capable of producing 150 to 700 tillers and 150,000 seeds. Crabgrass plants are very adaptable to mowing height. Plants can produce seeds at mowing heights as low as 1/2-inch.” Crabgrass also roots at the nodes forming mats across the ground. It thrives in heat and drought conditions and in what for many plants would be considered bad soil. If you make the soil healthier it might just make the crabgrass healthier, unless you follow an expert’s advice on how to remove the plant.

Another article, “Crabgrass”, at the Weed Science Society of America, wssa.net, said, “Crabgrasses (Digitaria spp.), the first cultivated grains, were grown for food thousands of years before they were considered weeds. Digitaria, a genus of about 60 species, grows in the world's temperate and tropical regions ... The seeds are very nutritious. Stone Age lake dwellers in Switzerland cultivated crabgrass; ‘foxtail millet’, a form of crabgrass, was an important food crop in China in 2700 B.C. From prehistoric times, crabgrass has been grown for food in India and Africa. In parts of the world, some kinds of crabgrass are still important cereals, providing staple grains for porridge and bread.” Online you can find crabgrass recipes for making breads, beer and more. But the first recipes brought back by search engines will probably be for “Texas Crabgrass,” an appetizer made from spinach and crabmeat, which really does resemble Digitaria.

Many sources said that the U.S. Patent Office intentionally imported crabgrass in 1849. But in the article “Crabgrass”, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service, nrcs.usda.gov, had this to say. “Seed of crabgrasses likely entered the United States as a seed contaminant in feedstuffs and foodstuffs brought by the European, and other, immigrants. The United States Patent Office (the forerunner of the USDA) supposedly imported crabgrass on purpose in about 1849, but that has not been ascertained in government papers. This importation was to help provide forage for draft animals and other farm animals of the time. The grass was very successful, leading to its disfavor as it encroached upon the cultivated field crops, yards, and gardens of the time. Those early experiences lead to much dislike of the grass that was literally passed from generation to generation without much consideration for the merits of the grass as forage ... The ‘River of Tradition’ runs deep; and there is still much social stigma due to prior training, but it is much improved over prior times and education about the grass continues to erode that stigma.”

D. sanguinalis and other crabgrass species have been used medicinally. In their article “Digitaria sanguinalis - (L.) Scop.”, Plants for a Future, pfaf.org, said, “A decoction of the plant is used in the treatment of gonorrhoea. A folk remedy for cataracts and debility, it is also said to be emetic.” An emetic causes vomiting, similar to syrup of ipecac.

The Native American Ethnobotany site, naeb.brit.org, lists several Native American tribes’ use of Digitaria in addition to its food use. They said the grass was pounded, mixed with water and taken for stomach and bowel hemorrhage. Leaves were used as a laxative. “Shoots [were] chewed into a thick liquid and blown into the eye for cataracts … Shoots chewed by mothers and given to infants for run down conditions.”

Crabgrass is generally seen as a nuisance plant. But if you need to feed your livestock, it may be welcome fodder. If you’re hungry, it may be seen as a nutritious grain or fermented beverage to be used the way other grass seeds such as corn and wheat are used. Think about what seeds you would take with you, if you had to leave home forever, crossing an ocean, to go someplace about which you had little or no information. It might be an interesting exercise.

Deborah Richardson is a freelance reporter for The Examiner with a fondness for flora in its natural setting.

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