They stick to your socks. And your jeans. And your pets.

The burs hang on to whatever brushes by. They don’t care where you’re going. They just want you to take them somewhere.
And you do. Every time you pick those prickly burs off your socks, or your jeans, or your pets, you spread the seeds of this native weed.

The common cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium, grows in fields and along rivers across the state. Farmers despise it. Hikers hate running into it.

But it was here before them. And with two seeds distributed in every inch-long bur, it isn’t going away. The seeds rely on the hooked prickles that cover the casing for distribution. After the bur finds a spot, the seeds can germinate right away or lie dormant for more than 10 years.

Although most people consider cocklebur a nuisance — it reduces the crop yield of cotton, corn, and soybeans; it contaminates sheep’s wool; and it’s poisonous to livestock — the plant once had a purpose.

The Carolina parakeet ate it. Old home remedies used it to cure aches and pains. But then the world changed around it. The Carolina parakeet died out. Home remedies gave way to prescriptions. And the cocklebur lost its relevance.

But it’s determined to stick around, spreading its seeds with every bur.

The Carolina Parakeet

When European settlers arrived on our shores, they saw flocks of multicolored birds throughout the Carolinas and Virginia. After they chartered the Carolina colony in 1663, they named the bird after the area. But those colonists put the native bird in danger. Farmers saw them as pests. Milliners wanted their feathers for accessories. By the 1800s, the Carolina parakeet no longer lived in North Carolina, and by 1918, the species was extinct.

Leah Hughes is an associate editor at Our State magazine.

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Since 1933, Our State has shared stories about North Carolina with readers both in state and around the world. We celebrate the people and places that make this state great. From the mountains to the coast, we feature North Carolina travel, history, food, and beautiful scenic photography.