Fleas are not fun, unless they are of the circus-performing variety. 

The good news is that this is not a pest problem piece. We are happy to be flea-free even though we have just adopted two new kittens. Dahlia and Daisy didn’t bring any nuisance insects with them but if they had, I might harvest a namesake plant reputed to help. 

Daisy fleabane may — or may not — be the answer. Plants in the genus have been credited with repelling fleas (and gnats and mites) when dried or burned. Some historic and unsubstantiated practices include adding it to bedstraw that was used to make mattresses, thus reducing chance of bedbug infestations). Starlings are even said to line their nests with it to reduce mites. Alternately, one naturalist suggested that the name comes from the seeds of the plant, noting they are “small as fleas.” I’m glad we are not in need of extermination services. 

Fleabanes of the erigeron genus are blooming out and about. These delicate, multi-petaled flowers are in the aster family, having composite flowers that attract a variety of wildlife, including insects and birds. Differing from traditional asters, these flowers bloom in spring and summer, not fall as most asters do. Many types of bees and flies visit the flower for nectar and pollen, and birds such as goldfinches and sparrows will eat the seeds. Crab spiders are also frequent flower visitors. 

Not to be left out, people will also partake in the consumption of this plant, though its hairy leaves and stems don’t seem appealing to this lover of cooking greens. Wildcrafters insist that boiling will make the fuzzy greens more palatable, though I feel no need to experiment with the consumption of this hairy plant. 

That down is the reason for its genus name, erigeron. Eri denotes woolly and descriptions of the whole word indicate it means “soon becoming old,” perhaps describing some species’ worn-out appearance. Another take on the etymology suggests that “eri” means early and “geron” means old man, perhaps referring to the downy surfaces of its greenery that resembles the white beard of an ancient gentleman. 

Besides potherbs, teas and tinctures can be made of the flowers and leaves. All parts contain caffeic acid, which is reputed to be an antioxidant and neuroprotective. 

These native species were used by indigenous people. The Catawba harvested fleabane and infused the roots as a remedy for heart trouble. The Ojibwa employed it as an analgesic for headache.   

For modern-day gatherers, care is recommended: the plant sap can cause a rash to some dermally-sensitive individuals. And leave your pets at home when you forage, since fleabane is poisonous to dogs and cats. 

Fleabane also holds a place in traditional folklore, for better or worse. During Midsummer’s Eve or solstice, ancients would make bouquets and garlands from fleabane and other blooms for protection from evil spirits and spells. Fleabane was also believed to be able to tell the future.

In one instance, symbolic representation of family members made from fleabane were put into a pot. The person whose flower withered first was thought to be the next death in the family. 

Varieties of these flowers will be blooming throughout the summer. As long as you don’t need them to predict the future or fight the fleas, they will be the boon and not the bane of our existence.

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.