Beautiful Weeds

Dandelion arrangement

Dandelions are the epitome of weediness for some people, but the only ones I root out are those that sprout inside the garden wall. Otherwise, I save my energy for plants I consider way more obnoxious.

I’ve been looking at them—and looking for them—all summer long, aiming to pull, or whack with the string trimmer, or spritz with an acidic shower of vinegar, or pry up with a shovel.

And even when I’m not approaching weeds with murderous intent, I’m thinking I should be doing so, lest they set seed and replicate themselves, sprouting in greater numbers next summer to consume yet more of my time and energy.

If you were to encounter me on a roadside hereabouts in July or August, you would likely wonder at my sweaty single-mindedness. I can only explain my summer season intensity by noting that weedy seed set feels to me like a deadline, looming over my life with the potential for devastating effects if missed.

The weeds are many, though, and for the second year in a row quite well-watered. In an effort to keep my self-imposed task from overwhelming me completely, I recently started carving out moments to pull back for intervals of appreciation.

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Common mullien (Verbascum thapsus) isn’t all that common up here, and I’d like to keep it that way, because it seeds prolifically and spreads easily. The woolly leaves are unpalatable to wildlife. The crown effect of the blossoms sure is cute, though.

The definition of a weed is a plant that’s growing where it’s not wanted. I most vehemently do not want these plants on my home ground, but I recognize that this judgment rests on subjective criteria. This factor of personal skew puts the adjudication of weediness on a par with determinations of beauty.

And so, while the bindweed might smother native plants, and the pennycress hogs water that could be going to the wildflowers and grasses that sustain the local fauna, and the cheatgrass poses a fire hazard, I’m forced to concede that these plants are also marvelously intricate in their functioning and, occasionally at least, beautiful.

And so, I’ve allowed my mind to stray toward grudging admiration at times. I’ve stopped to smell the Canada thistle and to appreciate the soft-serve swirl pattern evident in the bindweed’s bloom.

And then I keep pulling, or whacking or spraying or digging.

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Despite its name, Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) originated in Asia; it hitched a ride to Canada as a contaminant in seed crops, perhaps as early as two hundred years ago. In addition to producing seeds with dandelion-like fluff to help them ride the wind, the roots are well-studded with nodes that readily establish as a new plant. Our scattered local populations have proliferated primarily due to the annual grading of our gravel roads. The flowers look like they took a cue from Dr. Suess, and have an alluring fragrance–if you dare to get close enough to the spiny stems for a sniff.

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The iconic tumbling tumbleweed (Salsola iberica, or Russian thistle) established itself in the West in the 1800s, kinda like the cowboy. The plants disperse widely by, as you might have guessed, tumbling in the wind. Before they dry out and assume their easy-rolling dried basket form, the stems display festive red-and-green striping…although the spine-tipped leaves are unfriendly at any age, in any color.

Buckhorn plantain

I’m directly responsible for most of the Buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) that turns up on our place: it comes in with the horses’ hay. Fortunately, the horses help me out with control: since they find it tasty, plantain seldom sets seed inside the pasture fence, giving me more time to go after it with my shovel. It’s kind of charming to see how the small flowers work their way up the the green spike.

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Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) proliferates quickly to form dense stands. It favors the sites of the ephemeral ponds that form after our summer monsoons. The plants sprout and ripen as the water recedes, the inward progression of new growth creating striking eye-like discs, with muddy pupils.

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Both the name I’ve always known it by–bindweed–and the Latin–Convolvulus arvensis–have an ominous ring, while its other common names (creeping jenny, wild morninglory) make it seem slightly less malign. The plants ramble, climb, and choke; they love disturbed roadsides but are perfectly happy in locations occupied by other plants; they simply climb whatever’s there to claim the available sunlight. Below ground, bindweed is just as pugnacious, with roots that can penetrate as far as 30 feet down–in case you’ve ever wondered where it gets the energy to regrow no matter how many times you’ve pulled it. The seeds persist for decades. Those white flowers are, however, almost disarmingly charming.

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Downy brome, or cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), is a notorious invader, greening up early and ripening fast enough that populations of it will often sow a second crop in a single season, taking diabolical advantage of monsoon rains. When dry, cheatgrass stands are highly flammable. The plant also spreads by catching a ride in animal fur or people’s socks, as you may have discovered if you’ve hiked anywhere in the West. As it ripens, though, it turns a striking shade of purple-bronze.

 

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