BITTERWEED Helenium amarum

Rank has its privileges. Many people in our society bow to this saying. Some people even ignore the body of law that anchors our society because they regard their status as “above the law.”

Jesus taught a radically different premise when He said, “But you shall not be thus; but let the greater among you be as the younger, and the leader as he that serves” (Luke 22:26). The godly leader serves his people and models the behavior expected of his followers.


Helenium amarum

One day a local farmer and I were talking about this wildflower. He told how he had to pull up by hand every Bitterweed he saw in the pasture. It was not enough just to pull it up. He had to take each plant to the barn to be burned.

Any cow that ate a Bitterweed gave bitter tasting milk, causing severe financial losses for his dairy farm. As wearisome as it was to carefully walk over the pastures pulling up Bitterweed it was an imperative. Everyone did it, from the father and mother, to the field hands, to the children.

Tainted milk is just the beginning of the woes Bitterweed represents. Former UGA botanist Wilbur Duncan noted that horses and mules have died as result of eating too much of this plant.

Bitterweed, in the Aster Family, is also called Yellowdicks. It seems to thrive during a drought and is common within every mile along our area’s rural roadways. It is present even where the right-of-way has been regularly mowed. Though it normally reaches 12 to 18 inches tall, in mown areas it is 3 to 6 inches high with a full assortment of blooms.

One might ask why horses and mules would eat so much of this plant that they jeopardize their existence. The answer is drought. Fields that normally pasture livestock become so overgrazed that the only edible plant remaining is Bitterweed.

There is a beauty about Bitterweed in spite of its dangers, the abundance of blooms. A mature plant may have 20 to 40 yellow blooms. These are accented against a backdrop of very narrow deep green leaves. The flowers, which are about 3/4 inch diameter, have 10 to 16 petals that droop downward. The 3/8 inch center is deep yellow and as it ages it turns a brownish-yellow.

Finally, the stems are reddish-brown, very sturdy and woody. Some fields in our area are completely covered with thousands of Bitterweed. The restoration of those fields to pasture land will require several years of diligence. Mowing would only be a start because thousands of seeds have already fallen. Eventually, my friend’s practice of hand pulling and burning would finish the job.

Bitterweed is a large-scale pest, but there are habits and attitudes that are large scale problems, too. Jesus’ words regarding leadership and servitude can help our society succeed in healing the ills that pitch the “haves” against the “have-nots;” the powerful against the powerless, the young against the old, and the natives against the immigrants.

May we all lead with an attitude of servanthood to keep our community healthy.

Orrin Morris is a retired Baptist minister, local artist and art teacher. To purchase a two-volume set of books featuring his wildflower columns, visit The Sketching Pad in Olde Town Conyers, or call 770-929-3697 or text 404-824-3697. Email him at


I have been editor of the Rockdale Citizen since 1996 and editor of the Newton Citizen since it began publication in 2004. I am also currently executive editor of the Clayton News Daily, Henry Daily Herald and Jackson Progress-Argus.