This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Dull purplish red, about 1/3 in. across, borne in a curved raceme or panicle that straightens as the bloom advances upward. Calyx 5-parted; corolla salverform, its 5 lobes spreading; 5 stamens; 1 pistil. Stem: Erect, stout, hairy, leafy, usually branched, 1 1/2 to 3 ft. high. Leaves: Rather pale, lower ones large, oblong, slender petioled; upper ones lance-shaped, sessile, or clasping. (Thought to resemble a dog's tongue.)
Preferred Habitat - Dry fields, waste places.
Flowering Season - May - September.
Distribution - Quebec to Minnesota, south to the Carolinas and Kansas.
This is still another weed "naturalized from Europe" which, by contenting itself with waste land, has been able in an incredibly short time to overrun half our continent. How easy conquest of our vast unoccupied area is for weeds that have proved fittest for survival in the overcultivated Old World! Protected from the ravages of cattle by a disagreeable odor suggesting a nest of mice, and foliage that tastes even worse than it smells; by hairs on its stem that act as a light screen as well as a stockade against pilfering ants; by humps on the petals that hide the nectar from winged trespassers on the bees and butterflies' preserves, the hound's tongue goes into the battle of life further armed with barbed seeds that sheep must carry in their fleece, and other animals, including most unwilling humans, transport to fresh colonizing ground. For a plant to shower its seeds beside itself is almost fatal; so many offspring impoverish the soil and soon choke each other to death, if, indeed, ants and such crawlers have not devoured the seeds where they lie on the ground. Some plants like the violet, jewel-weed, and witch-hazel forcibly eject theirs a few inches, feet, or yards. The wind blows millions about with every gust. Streams and currents of water carry others; ships and railroads give free transportation to quantities among the hay used in packing; birds and animals lift many on their feet - Darwin raised 537 plants from a ball of mud carried between the toes of a snipe! - and such feathered and furred agents as feed on berries and other fruits sometimes drop the seeds a thousand miles from the parent. But it will be noticed that such vagabonds as travel by the hook or by crook method, getting a lift in the world from every passer-by - burdocks, beggar-ticks, cleavers, pitchforks, Spanish needles, and scores of similar tramps that we pick off our clothing after every walk in autumn - make, perhaps, the most successful travellers on the globe. The hound's tongue's four nutlets, grouped in a pyramid, and with barbed spears as grap-pling-hooks, imbed themselves in our garments until they pucker the cloth. Wool growers hurl anathemas at this whole tribe of plants.
A near relative, the common Virginia Stickseed (Lappula Virginiand) - C. Morisoni of Gray - produces similar little barbed nutlets, following insignificant, tiny, palest blue or white flowers up the spike. These bristling seeds, shaped like sad-irons, reflect in their title the ire of the persecuted man who named them Beggar's Lice. If, as Emerson said, a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered, the hound's tongue, the similar but blue-flowered Wild Comfrey (C. Virginicum), next of kin, and the stickseed are no weeds; forages ago the caterpillars of certain tiger moths learned to depend on their foliage as a food store.