Plant of the Month: Camphorweed

Aug 26, 16 • 5enses, Plant of the MonthNo Comments

Heterotheca subaxillaris. Photo by Max Licher, via SEINet, fair use.

By Lisa Zander

Our plant of the month first caught my eye in early spring as it sprouted in profusion along the Prescott-area roads I bike and run. Curious about this plant that I’d never noticed before, I plucked off a small piece of a sticky, egg-shaped leaf that pointed skyward. When I crushed the leaf, a strong aroma was released. I became intrigued with this mystery forb and kept a watchful eye as it grew taller.

As the spring and summer months went by, my frequent sightings of these same sticky basal leaves left me slightly concerned about the invasive nature of this common road-side weed. When it finally bloomed in late August, the big reveal were rowdy clusters of bright yellow disc and ray flowers — this plant was a member of the Asteraceae, the Aster Family. More specifically, through the Yavapai County Native and Naturalized Plants website, I identified the plant as Camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris), and was surprised to learn that it is native to our area.

And that aroma? As often is the case, the strong smell belayed the plant’s medicinal chemical compounds. The late herbalist, Michael Moore (not to be confused with the documentary filmmaker of the same name) wrote that Camphorweed can be used as an antiseptic and antifungal and that an ointment made from the plant may help to ease pain and inflammation. How fitting that this native weed I exercise alongside might also help ease an athletic injury.

In “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants,” Richard Mabey says, “How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet.”

It’s easy to overlook roadside weeds and their place in the world. Perhaps it is as Ralph Waldo Emerson optimistically suggests, a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”


Visit the Highlands Center for Natural History at 1375 Walker Road, 928-776-9550, or HighlandsCenter.Org.

Lisa Zander is the program coordinator and collections manager for the Natural History Institute at Prescott College. Her path as a plant enthusiast began in the Pine meadows of Eastern Washington, where as a child she liked to imagine that Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), could be found in all the colors of a painter’s palette.

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