In the normal scheme of things, I wouldn’t consider it a weed. Western sticktight (aka Lappula occidentalis, (or ledowskii), flatspine stickseed, flat-spine sheepburr…all variations on the theme) is a native plant, and as a general rule I have a bias in favor of natives.
And at first the plant seems innocuous, if not sweet. Pompoms of elongated leaves form early in the spring, charming in both their apparent eagerness to get an early start on the growing season, and in the tender fuzziness of their surfaces. Touch the plant in its youth, and you will marvel at the softness. When they emerge, the flowers are so tiny and of such a delicate shade of pale baby blue that you might be forgiven for cooing.
You’d think I was describing the kitten of the western plant world, but as this species matures, its cuteness and charm wither, and its character becomes anything but twee and touchable. The seeds that follow the wee flowers look furry, but their fine spines are barbed. Brush the plant with fabric or the hairiness of an animal hide, and a certain grippiness is revealed. By now, the plant has shot up a stem as a central column and extended a spray of gangly branches, somewhat in the manner of a miniature palm tree, each hung with tiny spiny fruits.
So long as the seeds are still green and immature, their capacity for cling might be a source of amusement, or mild annoyance. If, say, you come across one of these plants and decide that it is not wanted where it is growing (thereby nominating itself as a weed), and you pull the plant whilst wearing gloves, you’ll find that the entire assembly sticks rather persistently to your hand. Release the plant by taking it with the opposite hand and is simply transfers its attachments thereto. You might find yourself passing the unwanted herbage back and forth from one hand to another, hoping no one is lurking nearby with an infernal smart phone camera to video the unintentional comedy sketch.
Once the fruits mature and harden, the plant’s true nature asserts itself. By high summer, western sticktights are neither cute nor jocular nor merely annoying. They’re nasty.
The little seeds live up to the plant’s common name; they snap readily off wiry dry stems to stick tight to most anything that touches them. Sticktights have a particular affinity for shoelaces and socks, which is unfortunate because the plants branch at ankle height. Blunder into a stand of western sticktights, and you will emerge with lower extremities liberally peppered with tiny brown seeds, each of which is studded with hooks that grip and spines that poke. The seeds stick too firmly to brush off, so you’re forced to pluck at them one by one, whereupon they’ll stab your fingers with itsy-bitsy spines. The tips of these botanical needles easily break off, leaving you with a near-invisible but painful sliver.
You might think the stickers would break up in the washing machine, but they don’t: unplucked socks will emerge from the wash with the seeds even more deeply embedded in the weave. If a seed does happen to come loose, it will, by some as-yet-unknown rule of mechanics, wind up on the inward-facing surface of a pair of underwear. The tiny spines, it should be noted, do not soften after going through the wash.
The plants themselves appreciate a disturbed ground, which a common trait in plants we humans consider weedy: we like to disturb ground and then hope that it will remain disturbed, which is to say bare. Plants recognize bare ground as a vacuum ready to be occupied, and so roadsides or newly tilled fields or riding arenas are prime real estate so far as a seed is concerned. In the case of prolific seed-bearers like sticktights, one plant can yield a thicket the next season.
Dead sticktight stems remain standing, suspending the seeds in a miasmic cloud hovering above the ground. Essentially dirt colored, the mess is hard to see, and a moment’s failure of attention will win you armored pantlegs, stickery socks, and shoelaces welded into a bristly blob. Since my attention is frequently otherwhere when I’m out walking, I am now in the habit of yanking sticktights whenever I notice them. I don’t necessarily go looking for them the way I do certain other weeds, but I think of sticktight management as a matter of self-defense.
A good nemesis tends to inspire grudging respect, and I do have to hand it to the sticktights: they know how to survive. Like just about every other native plant I’ve ever met up here, Western sticktights demonstrate tenacity and adaptability, intricacy and efficiency. The plants have even devised a back-up plan in the event of uprooting efforts like mine. The taproot easily breaks, and a fragment left in the ground will quickly regrow. The replacement plant skips the effort of lofting a stem, and focuses on producing a compact ball that sets seed with speed and vigor, giving it a second chance to disperse the next generation via unwitting perambulators. I might admire the ingenuity and persistence, if I wasn’t so busy pulling stickers out of my socks.