The redstem stork’s bill, known by its scientific name Erodium cicutarium and also referred to as redstem filaree, common stork’s-bill or pinweed is native to the Mediterranean Basin and was introduced to North America in the eighteenth century. It has since become invasive, particularly of the deserts and arid grasslands of the southwestern United States, including the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County. It is a herbaceous annual – or in warm climates, biennial – member of the family Geraniaceae of flowering plants.
The redstem stork’s bill has been found flowering at elevations as high as 5000 feet.
A geranium relative it is believed to be one of the very earliest European plants to come to North America. It was apparently introduced to California by Spanish explorers in the early 1700s and spread quickly from there. Today it has an impressive range throughout 47 of the 48 lower states. It is not found in Florida.
In the Southern areas of North America such as the Mojave Desert, the plant tends to grow as a biennial with a more erect habit and with much larger leaves, flowers and fruits. It flowers from May until August. It is found in bare, sandy, grassy places both inland and around the coasts.
At higher elevations, the plant is an annual. The seeds of winter annuals germinate in the fall. The plant grows for as long as conditions permit in the fall and then starts growing again early in the spring, developing and disbursing seeds almost before other plants are growing. Thus, redstem filaree is one of the earliest plants to flower in the mountains. Because it germinates early, it is able to outcompete desirable plants and crops by taking up the available water and/or intercepting the sunlight. Redstem stork’s bill can be very prolific in a field.
It serves as a food plant for the larvae of the brown argus butterfly. In addition, the seeds are collected by various species of harvester ants. The pink flowers are a rich source of nectar for honey bees, and are pollen rich.
It is a hairy, sticky plant that bears bright pink flowers, which often have dark spots on the bases. The flowers are arranged in a loose cluster and have ten filaments – five of which are fertile – and five styles. The leaves are pinnate to pinnate-pinnatifid, and the long seed-pod, shaped like the bill of a stork, bursts open in a spiral when ripe, sending the seeds (which have little feathery parachutes attached) into the air.
Seed launch is accomplished using a spring mechanism powered by shape changes as the fruits dry. The spiral shape of the awn can unwind during daily changes in humidity, leading to self-burial of the seeds once they are on the ground. The two tasks (springy launch and self-burial) are accomplished with the same tissue (the awn), which is hygroscopically active and warps upon wetting and also gives rise to the draggy hairs on the awn.
All of the redstem filaree is edible, with a flavor similar to sharp parsley if harvested when it is young. It can be eaten raw in salads or can be cooked like spinach. It is most tasty if gathered early in the spring. If it gets tough, sustained boiling makes it palatable.
The specific epithet of redstem stork’s bill was chosen for the similarity of the leaves to poison hemlock leaves. Poison hemlock is Cicuta maculatum, redstem stork’s bill is Erodium cicutarium. They are not related and have numerous differences. Redstem stork’s bill is hairy, though that is hard to tell that in my photos. Poison hemlock is not hairy. Redstem stork’s bill has pink flowers and “stork’s bill” fruits, poison hemlock has white flowers in umbels. Redstem stork’s bill starts growing much earlier in the year than poison hemlock. Be careful if you are going to sample it later in the year, as poison hemlock is is indeed poisonous, even deadly.
There is an unverified legend that redstem stork’s bill contains an antidote to strychnine. The scientific community does not ascribe to this theory.
The plnat has soothing properties. Zuni Indians chewed the root of redstem stork’s bill to create a poultice applied to sores and rashes. An infusion of the root was also used as a cure for stomachache.