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Velvetleaf – Weekly Weeder #38

Velvetleaf - Weekly Weeder #38 @ Common Sense Home

Velvetleaf is also known as China Jute, Buttonweed, Butterprint , Indian Mallow, Piemarker, Wild Cotton, abutilon, elephant ears, cottonweed, abutilon hemp, Manchurian jute, and American jute .

Range and Identification of Velvetleaf

Velvetleaf is native to Asia and was introduced to America via India. The University of Tennessee Extension states:

Velvetleaf originated in either China or India. Its use as a fiber crop in China dates to 2000 B.C. or earlier. It is still grown there for fiber, which is used to make ropes, coarse cloth, nets, paper and caulk for boats. Whether as foreign material in crop seed or as an intended fiber crop, velvetleaf arrived
in North America probably before 1700, and became widespread along the East Coast by the early 1700s. Because the colonies desperately needed fiber for
rope and cloth, velvetleaf was widely cultivated in the mid-1700s. Although attempts to process velvetleaf fiber never succeeded economically, U. S. farmers continued to cultivate it for more than 100 years.

Velvetleaf is now found through almost all of North America, except for the extreme north (see map). It’s found in field, along roadsides and railways, in gardens and waste areas. It’s an annual with a deep tap root.

With up to 17,000 seeds per plant, velvetleaf is quite prolific. explains why many farmers hate this plant and now consider it a noxious weed.

Velvetleaf seeds have tough seed coats which protect them against digestion by farm animals; in fact, experimental germination of velvetleaf seed requires scarification with 1 M sulfuric acid for 15 min or boiling for 1 min (9). Seeds can remain viable for 50 yr when stored in the soil (12); one researcher reported 43% germination after 39 yr of burial (11). The seeds and seed coats also have chemicals and microbial agents which inhibit growth of bacteria and fungi.

Because it is in the same family as cotton, it can act as a host plant for diseases and insects. Also, it have been shown to depress germination rates of other plants (see above article for more info). (Maybe it could be used as a trap plant?)

Velvetleaf plants are tall and leggy, reaching up to 8 feet tall, but most plants are in the 2-4 foot tall range. The leaves are heart shaped, and soft and velvety to the touch. In a pinch, the soft leaves can be used as a toilet paper substitute. (Do be careful – some people may get an allergic skin reaction from the plant.)  This leaf is about half as big as I’ve seen them get – they can reach near dinner plate size.

velvetleaf leaf

The flowers are small, yellow, and rather inconspicuous. You can see some open flowers on the Wisconsin Master Gardener site. I caught these late in the day so they were closed.

velvetleaf flowers

 The seed heads are quite lovely. They are about an inch across.

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velvetleaf seedheads
velvetleaf seedhead

The seeds themselves are small, dark and heart shaped – and very tough. They are roughly 1/8″ across.

velvetleaf seeds

Wildlife Uses of Velvetleaf

 Wisconsin Master Gardener states:

In the U.S., the prairie deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) and the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), eat 70-90% of the seeds produced in Iowa corn fields, and likely they or similar rodents do the same elsewhere. Many insects also feed on the seeds, especially the native scentless plant bug (Rhopalidae) Niesthrea louisianica, whose immatures and adults feed on seeds of malvaceous plants. Inundative releases of this bug were used for biological control in New York and four midwestern states, resulting in a significant reduction in seed viability in the areas where it was established.

The University of Tennessee says the seeds are also eaten by mourning doves and quail.

Illinois Wildflowers covers the insect guests of velvetleaf:

The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract various kinds of bees, including bumblebees, leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.), miner bees (Melissodes spp.), and Halictid bees. Occasionally, small butterflies and skippers visit the flowers for nectar, while Syrphid flies feed on the abundant pollen. Two insects feed destructively on VelvetLeaf. The caterpillars of Pyrgus communis (Checkered Skipper) make folded-leaf nests from which they feed, while a scentless plant bug, Niesthrea louisianica, feeds on the floral buds, flowers, and seeds.

Is Velvetleaf Edible?

The seeds are commonly eaten in China and India. I tried some myself today. they have a rather nutty flavor, and are easier to chew than sunflower seeds. Wikipedia says the leaves are edible, but I don’t always trust their info.

As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant. You can check out my favorite wildcrafting books for more help.

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  1. I had planted pumpkins in my garden and thought that the velvetleaf was actually a pumpkin that had not um, fallen over like the other vines. I was wrong but the plant was still useful. I am collecting the seeds to store. Glad they grow here in Wisconsin!

  2. I had these growing in my garden and I cut them down, have the stalks drying to mulch them and now I see they are good for fiber, like hemp or kenaf!! Do you know of any resources for how to convert this into fiber for making cordage or possibly to use for making baskets? I would *love* to get away from using raffia and it seems like this would be perfect.

  3. Hello. I just had 3 of these pop up on a new planter this spring. They were spaced out perfectly, almost as if planted on purpose. I pulled the one in the middle but left the 2 on either end of the planter. So far, I have pulled 1 volunteer seedling from the yard from these bushes. I will continue to pull seedlings as I find them. But I think I’ll let at least 1 plant grow every year. I just fried some leaves in butter and added salt and pepper; very tasty. Also, I’m harvesting the dried seed pods for fall crafting with my mom. Since they’re not poisonous, the goats are enjoying the leaves I trim from the plants. These things get huge when they grow in pure goat poop, irrigation, and full sun.

  4. Hi, I am from the Invasive Council of B.C. I am wondering if you have the rights to the pictures for Velvet Leaf…and if so , would it be possible for us to use them on our website?


  5. I have one of these growing in my raised bed with melons & other things. So glad to find out what it is! Thank you for the good article!

  6. The blog post I have decided to feature is: “Plums to Prunes, Chicken to Dog Treats”. We all know what plums and prunes are good for, and for those of us that are iron deficient anemic and are on high doses of iron, the things are a God-send.

  7. In college I took a class called ‘Flora of the Great Plains’. My professor told me that a common name for this plant was ‘Butterprint ‘ because people would press the seed heads into pats of butter. I think it was done for fancy dinner parties.
    I see this all along the edges of corn and soybean fields and pretty much anywhere the soil gets disturbed.