Another name for it is spear grass, but most of us know this plant as foxtail. It’s an annual weed that grows everywhere from dry places to marshes. It is annoying for two reasons: it grows from the roots so it’s very difficult to get rid of and it’s a health hazard for animals. It looks like a fox’s tail if you need help distinguishing it. It has smooth, grass-like leaves that are pointed at the tip. The plant is a diaspore, which means it’s a seed dispersal unit that depends on animals and things passing by it to grab on for multiplying and replenishing. If you do get one on you or an animal, don’t leave it there. The more muscle movement, the further it gets pushed in.
This plant flowers from May to June and all of them have a hard tip, which is called a callus. They have rhetrobarbs that point away. There are many species with this plant and distinguishing the different species isn’t important unless you’re a botanist. They all have edible seeds, some more accessible than others. Although identifying is hard and not too important, it’s interesting to know some of the main species and their relation to countries and other grains. Hordeum is a foxtail species, but is known as wild barley. There’s alopecurus, which is the foxtail grasses. And then there’s bromus madritensis, which is foxtail brome and is one of the easier kind to identify, because they all have a reddish tint. Hordeum jubatum is foxtail barley, the family where barley originated. The largest and most common one, though, is setaria and that’s where most of the cultivated kind are. Did you say cultivated? Yes, this nuisance of a plant is actually cultivated in some countries. The setaria species is foxtail millet and in other countries it’s known as Italian millet, german millet, or chinese millet.
The fruit, seeds, grains, or whatever you want to call them are edible on this plant. They’re edible in the milk stage and the grain stage. The milk stage is when they’re green and the grain stage is when they’re brown. They are green in spring and start browning in fall and will stick around even in winter for you to harvest. They are also used to repel animals like rats. The seeds are kind of hard and can be cooked. If you pull apart the leaves at the stem, there is a edible, white base and you can eat that part too. Some species can be used as hay. It’s used medicinally for a lot of things from pregnancy to dogbites. You can hang them upside down and use them as a natural birdfeeder.
To harvest this plant you can burn it and use the parched seeds to ground up into flour for bread or porridge. The over parched seeds can be used as a coffee substitute. Or you can take the tail and put it on a newspaper to let is sit there until the seeds fall and pick them by hand. They are very nutty and delicious!