Descurainia sophia (flixweed)
- Summary of Invasiveness
- Taxonomic Tree
- Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature
- Plant Type
- Distribution Table
- History of Introduction and Spread
- Risk of Introduction
- Habitat List
- Biology and Ecology
- Latitude/Altitude Ranges
- Soil Tolerances
- Notes on Natural Enemies
- Means of Movement and Dispersal
- Pathway Causes
- Pathway Vectors
- Impact Summary
- Economic Impact
- Environmental Impact
- Risk and Impact Factors
- Uses List
- Similarities to Other Species/Conditions
- Prevention and Control
- Gaps in Knowledge/Research Needs
- Links to Websites
- Distribution Maps
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PicturesTop of page
IdentityTop of page
Preferred Scientific Name
- Descurainia sophia (L.) Webb ex Prantl
Preferred Common Name
Other Scientific Names
- Arabis sophia (L.) Bernh.
- Crucifera sophia (L.) E.H.L.Krause
- Descurainia sophia var. brachycarpa O.E. Schulz
- Descurainia sophia var. glabrata N.Busch
- Descurainia sophia var. macrophylla (Barnéoud) Prantl
- Descurainia sophia var. sophia
- Discurea sophia (L.) Schur
- Hesperis sophia (L.) Kuntze
- Phryne sophia (L.) Bubani
- Sisymbrium parviflorum Lam.
- Sisymbrium persicum Schrad. ex Spreng.
- Sisymbrium sophia L.
- Sisymbrium sophia var. brachycarpum Boiss.
- Sisymbrium tripinnatum DC.
- Sophia chirurgorum Garsault
- Sophia lobelii Rupr.
- Sophia parviflora (Lam.) Standl.
- Sophia sophia (L.) Britton
- Sophia vulgaris Fourr.
International Common Names
- English: flaxweed tansymustard; flixweed tansymustard; herb-sophia; herb-Sophia; pinnate tansymustard
- Spanish: ajenjo loco; ajenjo serifio; hieba de la sabiduría; hierba de los cirujanos; Sofia
- French: descurainie sagesse; sagesse-des-chirurgiens; sisymbre sagesse
- Portuguese: erva-Sofia
Local Common Names
- China: bo niang hao
- Denmark: barberforstand; finbladet vejsennep
- Finland: litutilli
- Germany: Besenrauke; Sophienkraut
- Iceland: Þefjurt
- Italy: erba Sofia
- Japan: kujira-gusa
- Korea, Republic of: jaessug
- Netherlands: Sofiekruid
- Norway: hundesennep
- Spain: herba de la sabiduria; herba de Santa Sofia
- Sweden: stillfrö
- UK/England and Wales: piblys
- UK/Scotland: finéal muire
Summary of InvasivenessTop of page
Descurainia sophia, commonly known as flixweed, is an annual (rarely biennial) pioneer herb that colonises disturbed sites and is adapted to growing in dry environments. It is also a crop pest and can facilitate the establishment of other introduced species. Stands often become dense and crowded within a few post-disturbance years and which can increase the risk of fires. It produces abundant seed which can retain their viability for considerable periods in the soil, and uncrowded stands of D. sophia can develop rapidly. Outside of disturbed areas, this species’ dispersal rate is relatively slow. D. sophia is classified as a noxious weed in Colorado and Minnesota, USA (USDA-APHIS, 1999; USDA-NRCS, 2003), as well as in Canada (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011). It is considered invasive in Mexico, Japan, Republic of Korea, Chile and Australia.
Taxonomic TreeTop of page
- Domain: Eukaryota
- Kingdom: Plantae
- Phylum: Spermatophyta
- Subphylum: Angiospermae
- Class: Dicotyledonae
- Order: Capparidales
- Family: Brassicaceae
- Genus: Descurainia
- Species: Descurainia sophia
Notes on Taxonomy and NomenclatureTop of page
Descuarainia is a genus in the mustard family (Brasicaceae) commonly known as the tansymustards. It comprises 57 accepted species (The Plant List, 2013). The genus Descurainia was named after French botanist and apothecary Francois Decourain (1658-1740) (Missouri Botanic Garden, 2015).
Descurainia sophia has undergone multiple revisions since it was first described by Linnaeus in 1753 under the binomial Sisymbrium sophia L. (Weed Science Society of America, 2003). The APG III system of flowering plant classification currently recognizes 19 synonyms for this species (The Plant List, 2013). The Greek epithet sophia (wisdom) alludes to this species’ reputed medicinal properties (Gledhill, 1989). The origin of its most internationally accepted vernacular name, flixweed, is probably a corruption of 'fluxweed' (Weed Science Society of America, 2003). In 18th century England, fluxweed was believed to be a cure for flux or dysentery and was commonly prescribed to people afflicted with diarrhoea (Weed Science Society of America, 2003).
DescriptionTop of page
Adapted from the Flora of North America Editorial Committee (1993):
D. sophia is an annual, eglandular, sparsely to densely pubescent herb that grows up to 90 cm; with hairy outgrowths from the epidermis, tree-shaped. Stems erect, un-branched or distally branched, (1-)2-7(-10) dm. Leaves at the base with a petiole 0.1-2(-3) cm long; blade bi or tripinnate, ovate or oblong to obovate in outline, to 15 cm, lateral lobes linear or oblong, (to 10 × 2 mm), margins entire. Leaves growing at the stem sessile or shortly petiolate; blade smaller distally, distal lobes often narrower, surfaces often glabrous. Racemes considerably elongated in fruit. Fruiting pedicels (5-) 8-15(-20) mm long, coming off the stem almost at a right angle. Flowers: sepals erect to ascending, yellowish, oblong, 1.8-2.8 mm long, glabrate to sparsely pubescent; petals narrowly oblanceolate, 2-3 × 0.4-0.6 mm; median filaments 2-3 mm; anthers 0.3-0.4 mm. Fruit an erect, narrowly linear, cylindric pod (12-)15-27(-30) × 0.5-0.8(-1) mm, (straight or curved upward). Fruit valves each with distinct midvein; septum with a broad central longitudinal band appearing as 2 or 3 veins, with 20-48 ovaries per ovary. Style obsolete, 0.05-0.2 mm, glabrous. Seeds are are arranged in one row, reddish brown, oblong, 0.7-1.3 × 0.3-0.6 mm.
Plant TypeTop of page
DistributionTop of page
D. sophia is native to Eurasia, from Portugal to China, and northern Africa. Its current distribution includes South America, East Asia, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It is also present in Northern Mexico and most part of the USA and Canada.
Distribution TableTop of page
The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.Last updated: 25 Feb 2021
|Continent/Country/Region||Distribution||Last Reported||Origin||First Reported||Invasive||Reference||Notes|
|India||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-Jammu and Kashmir||Present||Native|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Present||Native|
|Russia||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-Russian Far East||Present||Native|
|United Kingdom||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|Canada||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-New Brunswick||Present, Only in captivity/cultivation||Introduced|
|United States||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|Australia||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-New South Wales||Present||Introduced||Invasive|
History of Introduction and SpreadTop of page
D. sophia was probably introduced to North America in the mid 19th century as a contaminant in crop seed of Eurasian origin (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011).
Risk of IntroductionTop of page
There is a risk of further accidental introductions of D. sophia through contamination of agricultural produce.
HabitatTop of page
D. sophia can be found in open-canopy, disturbed sites (PIER, 2016). It grows in a wide range of environments: from cold desert, tundra, taiga, alpine, and subalpine ecosystems to hot desert and dry-tropical Hawaiian ecosystems (Kartesz and Meacham, 1999). It occurs at elevations of 0-3000 m on hillsides, mountain slopes, canyon bottoms and stream banks (PIER, 2016). In Europe, this species is pimarily found on open, warm, nutrient-rich sandy or stony soils (Hanf, 1973). It commonly grows on roadsides, in washes, waste grounds, early seral burns, pastures, cultivated areas, and old fields (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011; PIER, 2016).
Habitat ListTop of page
|Terrestrial||Managed||Cultivated / agricultural land||Principal habitat||Harmful (pest or invasive)|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Disturbed areas||Principal habitat||Natural|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Rail / roadsides||Principal habitat||Natural|
|Terrestrial||Natural / Semi-natural||Cold lands / tundra||Principal habitat||Natural|
|Terrestrial||Natural / Semi-natural||Rocky areas / lava flows||Principal habitat||Natural|
|Terrestrial||Natural / Semi-natural||Deserts||Principal habitat||Natural|
Biology and EcologyTop of page
According to the Flora of North America Editorial Committee (1993), deviant chromosome counts (e.g., 2n = 12, 14, 20, 38) reported by Rollins (1993) and Warwick et al. (2006) are most certainly erroneous. D. sophia appears to be exclusively tetraploid based on x = 7 (Flora of North America Editorial Committee, 1993). However, ten reports in Missouri Botanic Gardens (2016) report the species as a diploid with 2n = 28.
The flowers of D. sophia are hermaphrodite. This species is allo- and autogamous (Howard, 2003), however, pollination is also insect-mediated. The sepals contain nectaries that attract insects (Hickey and King, 1981).
Each plant normally produces between 75-650 seeds (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011). According to Rutledge and McLendon (1996), very large plants can produce over 700,000 seeds each, which contribute to a large seed bank.
Physiology and Phenology
Cotyledons of D. sophia have a clavated tip and are more or less stalked (French National Institute for Research, 2000). After the cotyledon stage, the seedling forms a rosette of basal leaves, then grows the stem and cauline leaves (Hickman, 1993). Autumn-germinating seeds overwinter as rosettes (Best, 1977). Plants may develop numerous leaves and up to 15 lateral, fruit-bearing branches at maturity (Best, 1977).
This species is an annual plant, rarely biennial (Plants for a Future, 2012; Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, 2016).
According toEncyclopaedia of Life (2015), D. sophia flowers from late spring to mid autumn and bears fruit from summer to late autumn. Depending on latitude and elevation, seeds germinate in spring, autumn, and winter (Thomas and Donaghy, 1991).
Population Size and Structure
This species shows good germination (Conn and Farris, 1987), with a mean rate of about 70% (Salisbury, 1961). D. sophia stands often become dense and crowded within a few postdisturbance years, and thin as succession advances (Best, 1977).
D. sophia has been recognized for its ecological importance in the majority of North American desert ecosystems. In Great Basin Desert communities of east-central Nevada, it showed 25-40% frequency in Artemisia tridentata communities and 5-66% frequency in Pinus monophylla-Juniperus osteosperma communities (Blackburn et al., 1968). According to Brooks (1998), on the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area in the Mojave Desert, southern California, D. sophia associates with creosotebush (Larrea tridentata), white bursage (Ambrosia dumosa), and other annuals, the most common being cutleaf filaree (Erodium cicutarium), red brome (Bromus madritensis ssp. rubens), and Mediterranean grass (Schismus spp.).
According to Huffman (2003), this species is a larval food for butterfly species such as orangetip (Anthocharis spp.), white checkered butterfly (Pontia protodice), and white cabbage butterflies (Pieris spp.).
D. sophia grows in semi-shade (light woodland) or no-shade sites. It tolerates a variety of mineral soils including loam, silty clay, and sand, where it is most common (Howard, 2003). According to Skougard and Brotherson (1979), this species prefers moisture, but tolerates dry soil, however, it is not salt tolerant. Pfeiffer (1957) noted that D. sophia was often found in excessively drained soils, rich in CaCO3 and poor in humus. In salt-desert shrubland environments (like that of central Utah), occurrence is limited to plots with <3,000 ppm soluble salts and <12% soil moisture (Skougard and Brotherson, 1979). D. sophia can grow in all acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils (Plants for a Future, 2012).
ClimateTop of page
|BS - Steppe climate||Preferred||> 430mm and < 860mm annual precipitation|
|BW - Desert climate||Preferred||< 430mm annual precipitation|
|Cf - Warm temperate climate, wet all year||Preferred||Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, wet all year|
|Cs - Warm temperate climate with dry summer||Preferred||Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, dry summers|
|Cw - Warm temperate climate with dry winter||Preferred||Warm temperate climate with dry winter (Warm average temp. > 10°C, Cold average temp. > 0°C, dry winters)|
|Dw - Continental climate with dry winter||Tolerated||Continental climate with dry winter (Warm average temp. > 10°C, coldest month < 0°C, dry winters)|
Latitude/Altitude RangesTop of page
|Latitude North (°N)||Latitude South (°S)||Altitude Lower (m)||Altitude Upper (m)|
Soil TolerancesTop of page
Notes on Natural EnemiesTop of page
Immature specimens of the scentless plant bug (Rhopalus tigrinus) feed on the reproductive structures of D. sophia (Wheeler and Hoebeke, 1999).
Means of Movement and DispersalTop of page
The seeds of D. sophia can be dispersed by wind, water, and animals (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011). Salisbury (1961) suggested that mucilaginous seeds become attached to the feathers of birds feeding in ruderal communities and are removed into new areas by preening. Moreover, a study by Blackshaw and Rode (1991) found that seeds can survive digestion by ruminant grazers or short-term silage, thus making it possible for the plant to be locally dispersed by this means.
D. sophia can be dispersed as a seed contaminate of cereal and forage (Rutledge and McLendon, 1996).
Seeds are known to stick to and be transported by vehicles and machinery (Howard, 2003).
Pathway CausesTop of page
Pathway VectorsTop of page
Impact SummaryTop of page
|Environment (generally)||Positive and negative|
Economic ImpactTop of page
D. sophia is known to interfere with agricultural production. It competes for moisture and nutrients and it reduces overall crop yields (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011).
D. sophia is an alternate host for beet leafhoppers (Circulifer tenellus), which transmit curly top virus to sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) crops (Hironaka, 1986).
Moreover, all parts of this plant are poisonous to large mammals and, when ingested, cause blindness, staggering, and loss of ability to swallow (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011).
Environmental ImpactTop of page
Impact on Habitats
D. sophia is a pioneer that colonises disturbed substrates, including sites of heavy grazing (Quinton et al., 1982), and facilitates the establishment of other introduced species.
According to Howard (2003), this species often forms dense stands that, when dry, increase the risk of fires. If stands do not burn, then the dried plants provide litter, which facilitates the establishment of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) (Howard, 2003).
Best (1977) stated that this species’ low, rosette habit protects overwintering plants from low temperatures and drying winds, enabling them to gain maximum advantage from the insulating effect of snow cover.
According to Huffman (2003), D. sophia is a larval food for butterfly species such as orangetip (Anthocharis spp.), white checkered butterfly (Pontia protodice), and white cabbage butterflies (Pieris spp.).
According to Howard (2003), Townsend's ground squirrels (Urocitellus townsendii) graze D. sophia, sometimes in large quantity.
Risk and Impact FactorsTop of page
- Proved invasive outside its native range
- Has a broad native range
- Abundant in its native range
- Tolerates, or benefits from, cultivation, browsing pressure, mutilation, fire etc
- Pioneering in disturbed areas
- Fast growing
- Has high reproductive potential
- Has propagules that can remain viable for more than one year
- Increases vulnerability to invasions
- Modification of fire regime
- Modification of nutrient regime
- Negatively impacts agriculture
- Negatively impacts animal health
- Reduced native biodiversity
- Competition - monopolizing resources
- Pest and disease transmission
- Interaction with other invasive species
- Rapid growth
- Highly likely to be transported internationally accidentally
- Difficult to identify/detect as a commodity contaminant
- Difficult/costly to control
UsesTop of page
D. sophia is a tertiary genetic relative of rape (Brassica napus) (Warwick et al. 2009). Given its moderate palatability to livestock (Pfister et al., 1990), this species is likely to have limited economic value for animal husbandry.
D. sophia has serveral medicinal and edible uses. In China this species is one of the several ingredients employed in the elaboration of medicinal cigarettes (Fan, 2002). It is also used in mixtures of Chinese herbs to prevent lung cancer (Mohamed and Mahrous, 2009). The flowers and the leaves are antiscorbutic and astringent (Duke and Ayensu, 1985). In Spanish traditional medicine, seeds were used as vermifuge and febrifuge (Feliner, 1993). Moreover, a paste made from crushed leaves is used in the elaboration of skin repairing masks (Feliner, 1993).
Moerman (1998) noted several uses for this species in native American pharmacopoeia: seeds and entire plants were used to treat burns and sores and to ease the pain of toothache, respectively. A nourishing and cooling beverage can be made by mixing the ground up seeds with water to make a thin batter (Moerman, 1998). According to Grieve (1995), in the past, the seeds were employed in the treatment of sciatica, while the juice of the plant was used to treat chronic coughs, hoarseness and ulcerated sore throats (Grieve, 1995). A strong decoction of the plant can be used in the treatment of asthma, fevers, bronchitis, oedema and dysentery (Duke and Ayensu, 1985; Grieve, 1995).
According to Duke and Ayensu (1985), the seed of this species contains 25.5-29.9% protein and 26.9-39.7% fat. Seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, while young leaves and shoots can only be ingested when cooked (Uphof, 1968). Because of their pungent taste, they are used as a mustard substitute (Facciola, 1990). According to Plants for a Future (2012), the seed can be ground into a powder, mixed with cornmeal and used to make bread, or as a thickening agent for soups. It can also be sprouted and added to salads (Plants for a Future, 2012).
Uses ListTop of page
Drugs, stimulants, social uses
Human food and beverage
- Food additive
- Spices and culinary herbs
Similarities to Other Species/ConditionsTop of page
This species can be confounded with Descurainia virletii, a native of central Mexico. D. sophia is distinguishable from D. virletii from the latter’s presence of glands but absence of stallate hairs and the larger fruits (1.5-3 cm long in D. sophia and 0.8-1 cm long in D. virletii) (Roldán et al., 2009).
D. sophia is also also similar in habit and appearance to D. pinnata, a native of North America. The former can be distinguished from the latter in its leaves, which are bi- or tripinnately divided, and its pods, which are biserate and linear. D. pinnata’s leaves are only bipinnately divided and its pods are uniserate and slightly club-shaped (Miller, 1998).
According to Best (1977), D. incana (previously Descurainia richardsonii) is rather readily distinguished from both D. sophia and D. pinnata subsp. brachycarpa as its siliques (i.e. the long, narrow seedpod of many plants of the mustard family) and stalks are erect and close to the main flowering stem. The siliques of D. incana are about 6 mm long and are on stalks 3 mm long.
Moreover, Best (1977) noted that Sisymbrium species bear strong resemblance to Descurainia species. However, the Sisymbrium species do not have branched hairs and the flowers are larger (2.5-8.0 mm) than those of the Descurainia species.
Prevention and ControlTop of page
Due to the variable regulations around (de)registration of pesticides, your national list of registered pesticides or relevant authority should be consulted to determine which products are legally allowed for use in your country when considering chemical control. Pesticides should always be used in a lawful manner, consistent with the product's label.
Since D. sophia is an early seral species (a species which colonizes during the intermediate stage of ecological succession), it is recommended to minimize soil disturbance and seed dispersal, as well as to maintain a healthy plant community in order to prevent its establishment (Colorado Department of Agriculture et al., 2000). This species is largely controlled by succession (Howard, 2003).
Colorado Department of Agriculture et al., (2000) recommends using hand weeding or simple implements to uproot plants. Particularly, hand pulling should target small infestations and situations where chemicals or motorized equipment cannot be used or are undesirable.
According to University of Alaska Anchorage (2011), fire is unlikely to provide control for D. sophia, given that fire provides the conditions for this species’ establishment (bare soil, open canopy, reduced growth interference) (Best, 1977). If this species is already onsite in the seed bank, or as a few plants, fire is likely to increase its importance in the early postfire community (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011).
According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture et al., (2000), there are no biological control organisms reported for D. sophia.
Seedlings of D. sophia are sensitive to most herbicides at relatively low application rates (Howard, 2003). Glyphosate and 2,4-D, as well as many other herbicides give excellent control (Thomas and Donaghy, 1991; Hulting, 2015). However, Heap (2015) states that, in China and the USA, this species has since 2005 developed resistance to several herbicides and infests cereals and winter wheat. These herbicides include Group B/2 herbicides (ALS inhibitors – acetolactate and acetohydroxyacid synthase), Group O/4 herbicides (Synthetic auxins - action like indoleacetic acid), and Group E/14 herbicides (protoporphyrinogen oxidase inhibitors) (Heap, 2015).
Gaps in Knowledge/Research NeedsTop of page
According to Howard (2003), wildlife use of D. sophia is poorly documented, and further studies are needed to determine its relative importance in animal communities.
ReferencesTop of page
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ContributorsTop of page
31/12/2015 Original text:
Diana Quiroz, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, The Netherlands
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