A seasonal invasion that’s turned more sinister

Written by By Jayson Jacoby May 10, 2013 10:32 am

Spring has traditionally been the season for armies to attack, as soon as the ground is firm enough that their horses and field guns and tanks won’t bog down.

It’s also the season when invaders of a different sort launch their annual onslaught across the borders of my modest piece of land, which is in most respects a tranquil place where not much of a martial sort happens except between a little boy and his older sister.

I’m referring to weeds.

Vegetative vermin.

Photosynthetic scum.

This seasonal offensive includes the common culprits — the brazen dandelion painting its yellow graffiti across my well-tended lawn, the milkweed posing as innocent crocus, the ground ivy (alias: dollar weed) thrusting stubborn taproots a foot into the soil.

(I’m convinced that a ground ivy taproot could support the weight of a ’59 Cadillac if tied to the Caddy’s bumper.)

The past several springs, though, these familiar foes have been joined by ones more sinister — weeds whose ugly mugs show up on the sorts of “most wanted” posters once reserved for fugitives who hold up stagecoaches or rob banks.

“Noxious” is the usual adjective applied to these weeds, and it’s a word which to my ear perfectly captures the plants’ unpleasant nature.

(This is typical of words ending in “ous” — jealous, for instance, and unctuous.)

Their vanguard was whitetop. It crept in among the vinca vines on the west side of the house and I didn’t recognize it until one stalk had erupted in the white blossoms that give the weed its common name (it also goes by “hoary cress” and by a variety of vernaculars which are unsuitable for this publication).

When I realized that it was indeed whitetop, the most infamous noxious weed in Baker County, I felt violated — as if I had walked into my living room and found a stranger there, sprawled on my sofa, eating my chips and drinking my beer.

A couple weeks ago I found a few whitetop seedlings poking through the red cinders on the east side of the house, they apparently having ridden in on the same evil wind that delivered others to the opposite side.

Fortunately, whitetop is relatively easy to confine on a city lot like mine, if you yank it before it goes to seed.

A more recent, and more insidious, invader is bur buttercup.

Whoever named this scourge got the “bur” part right enough — the weed’s tiny flowers, after blooming, turn into sharp burs.

But even though those blooms are yellow, as a buttercup’s are, I see no reason to impugn the buttercup, a perfectly innocuous plant, by lending its name to a nasty, foot-puncturing weed.

Sadly, and inexplicably,  the taxonomic authorities rarely consult me on such matters.

Bur buttercup hardly poses any great risk to the sanctity of my grounds, of course.

With a mere 9,000 square feet to watch over — that’s one-fifth of an acre, and much of it’s covered by a house anyway — eradicating a patch of weeds requires a bit of effort with a shovel or metal rake, none of it terribly taxing.

(And spraying herbicide is easier still — especially since my father-in-law owns the sprayer.)

But my skirmishes with noxious weeds have given me a new appreciation for how monumental the task is of trying to combat their spread on vastly larger scales.

Baker County, for instance, which covers 2 million acres, or about 10 million of my home lots.

Considering noxious weeds can hitch a ride on everything from a deer’s flanks to a heifer’s hooves to the tires on my four-wheel drive, it seems a minor miracle that the county isn’t overrun with whitetop and the like.

(Although in places the battle clearly is over, and the weeds have won.)

The word “weed” is a troublesome one in one respect.

There’s nothing inherently evil about a dandelion, for example. My aversion to the species is purely aesthetic and therefore not altogether rational.

A case could be made that I’d be better off growing dandelions than grass — at least you can eat dandelions.

You can even make wine from them, although, as I mentioned, I’m more of a beer man myself.

But there’s little to recommend weeds such as bur buttercup, which crowd out native grasses and forbs that wild animals as well as domestic livestock like to eat.

Besides which, many noxious weeds are toxic.

Government agencies and private landowners have been tussling with weeds for decades and, as with most wars, the momentum shifts, with counterattacks being mounted to reclaim hill and valley alike.

It’s a good fight, and one worth waging.

My part in this is negligible, with nothing at stake but my landscaping. But I keep at it, and relish the occasional ambush when I catch a patch of ground ivy unawares and get the whole root, straight from the rich soil.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.