Beggar’s Lice is one of those plants that you don’t often see at first blush. Its small and spindly, not much of a standout on the forest floor.
But after a first brush with the plant, you’re very likely to see it’s Velcro-like seeds hitching a ride on your pants.
This plant – actually these plants because there are dozens of closely related species with the same nickname and similar characteristics – are all members of the genus Desmodium or Hylodesmum. In Alabama, there are 20 species of Desmodium and three more of Hylodesmum. They are known collectively as Beggar’s Lice or Tick Trefoil, but they’re also called Stick Ticks, Tick’s Clover and Hitch Hikers. Most folks around Lake Martin call them Beggar’s Lice, or they sometimes drop the ‘s’ and just say, “Beggar Lice.”
This is a huge group of closely related plants that has more than 300 members and is found almost all over the world, with the exception of Europe. More than 50 species are native to the United States.
Beggar’s Lice are perennial forbs that grow 2 to 4 feet tall. Its leaves grow on alternate sides of the stem and are trifoliate, meaning that each leaf is divided into three leaflets (which each look a lot like an individual leaf). Leaf shape and size varies with species – some are long and shaped like lance points, while others are oval or roundish.
Its flowers are relatively small, vary in color from purple to white, and look a lot like pea or bean flowers, because they are closely related.
These herbaceous plants are relatively lanky, as opposed to being compact and bushy, which helps make them hard to spot when they’re elbowing for space with dozens of different wild plants.
They grow best in disturbed soil, like new field edges or open forests that have been burned. Beggar’s Lice does well in sandy and rocky soils and in partial to full sun, and it’s kind of middle of the road when it comes to the amount of water it needs.
The obvious characteristic that Desmodium spp. (‘spp.’ is a scientific abbreviation that means more than one species; a fact you can use to impress your biologist friends) have in common are their distinctive flat, triangular-shaped seed pods that stick to almost everything they touch. The seeds, which appear in the early fall when each plant produces loads of them, are covered with tiny hair-like hooks, like the harder plastic side of Velcro. This makes the seed pod stick to fur, fabric or even bare skin. If you’ve ever walked in the tall grass and weeds in the fall, you’ve probably found Beggar’s Lice on your pants. If your dog is walking with you, you’ve probably found them on him, too.
They stick surprisingly well and are sometimes difficult to remove … especially from fuzzy socks and sweaters and long-haired dogs. Sometimes it takes a steel comb or just picking off each triangular Stick Tick one-by-one.
For a plant firmly rooted in the ground, growing seeds that stick to moving creatures is a very good way to spread across the countryside.
Hunters with game cameras sometimes see deer speckled with Beggar’s Lice during the early part of the season.
For the environment, it’s not a bad thing that Beggar’s Lice are so widespread.
Beggar’s Lice is a legume, a member of the ecologically important Fabaceae family that includes beans and peas. Like other legumes, Beggar’s Lice improves the quality of its home dirt by fixing nitrogen in the soil. This means these plants can be considered a ‘living mulch’ or ‘green manure’ that is helpful to have growing on your property.
And it smells better than the real manure.
The benefits of Beggar’s Lice don’t stop there because the sticky triangle seeds are high in protein and are one of the most important native foods for many game animals, including Wild Turkey, Bobwhite Quail and Whitetail Deer. People who manage their land for game often choose to sow Beggar’s Lice because it is a native plant that provides nutrition comparable to soybeans. Both Beggar’s Lice and soybeans contain 20 percent to 40 percent crude protein and 20 percent to 28 percent fiber.
By the way, if you do have Beggar’s Lice on your jeans, a dull butter knife held at a 45-degree angle and rubbed across the fabric will scrap them off.
But that probably won’t work on your dog.
Information for this article came from Dave’s Garden, the Alabama and North Carolina extension services, Troy University and QDMA.