- Melissa Westemeier
It's a sultry 76 degrees this morning and I started a fire in our backyard pit. (Disclosure: I hate fires. When people are all, "Hey, come over. We'll have a fire." I'm like, "Hard pass." They smell, they're smokey, I get more pleasure looking at literally ANYTHING else in nature, like water, stars, mountains, trees. I find zero pleasure in fires.) Why would I start a fire this morning? It's a bitter continuation of Melissa v. Nature. And my continued lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.
Let me back up to about 20 years ago when we bought our property. Most of the area immediately around our house was an alfalfa field. We began restoring native prairie and planting trees to bring the land back to its, er, natural state. Anyone who has attempted gardening understands how weeds present a constant threat, but when working with acres of land, you cut corners. We had some bull thistles crop up in the field, but I decided to ignore them
Bull thistles are terrifying. They look gorgeous when in bloom, but these pesky biennials grow to be up to 7 feet tall and they are covered in the sharpest spikes that can be INCHES long. They begin as disks of leaves that grow close to the ground in early spring, so when you're looking over tall grass prairies they're easy to miss unless you're right on top of them. The disks spread to about the size of a dinner plate, then after they've outcompeted anything that might grow near it, the tap root grows deep and the thistle grows up. They're pretty unnoticeable until August when their purple blooms stand out against the foliage around them. If you've ever touched one, you know just how painful they are, from the small bristly thistles on the leaves to the long impaling spears on the mature branches.
Image from USWildflowers.com
Well, I ignored those thistles for the first few years we lived here and it came at my peril. They are prolific and soon took over the landscape. I had to consult with our county's land conservation office and I learned these thistles are best eradicated with RoundUp. (Insert collective groan) "Probably easiest to spray the whole field if you've got that many," the expert told me. Upon learning our land was speckled with baby trees, the expert told me my other option was to hand spray. Frequently. Because biennials.
For the next few years I walked back and forth and back and forth across our acres with my container of RoundUp (Insert collective moan) and hand-sprayed each thistle I could find. It was best to catch them in the spring and years of dedication paid off. We had nary a thistle in sight.
Which brings me to my bonfire this morning.
A couple weeks ago I noticed a patch of bull thistles had grown between us and our neighbor, Grandma K. I didn't want to relive my earlier battles, nor did I want (or expect) Grandma K to get involved. Sunday afternoon I donned jeans and work gloves and grabbed my large tree pruner and a tarp. I sprayed down with OFF and waded into the tall grass to begin cutting down the thistles. A couple had matured and their seed heads were burst open, but I took them down, too. It was hot, sweaty, pokey, and tedious labor. Mosquitoes munched on my flesh as I sweated my skin free of DEET. I cut each plant at the base and jumped back so it wouldn't land on me and stab me to death. There were over sixty plants, some as tall as me with branches that tangled with their neighbors. This job had no evident shortcut, just lean in, cut, avoid contact, and carefully handle the downed plant. After locating and cutting out every bull thistle, I used the tarp to drag their carcasses down to our fire pit. My plan was to let them dry out and then burn them so they couldn't go to seed. The fire pit was LOADED with bull thistles.
(Insert Nature's diabolical laughter)
I bragged to my family that they could call me "State Farm" because I'm, like, a good neighbor, keeping the invasive spiky weed under control.
Last night I was watching the sunset from our screen porch and I noticed these fluffy white objects glimmering against the lawn. Hm. Wonder what went to seed. A couple hours later D remarked, "Looks like no good deed goes unpunished." "What do you mean?" "Those thistles from behind Grandma K's that you put in our fire pit? Yeah, their seeds are blowing all over the yard."
I didn't expect they'd go to seed that quickly--two days! Fun fact: The average bull thistle flower has 300 seeds. I know this because I looked it up on the Cornell University Weed Identification website, I didn't count them. Imagine my disgust, it's hot and sticky and mosquito-y and I have to go rake up the yard and burn the thistles piled in the pit. Which is what I did this morning.
I took a picture of one seed so you can be impressed at how delicately tiny they are:
I put that cup of coffee next to the seed so you can get a sense of its size.
It's amazing if you think about how efficient these seeds are designed to float and fly and replant themselves. The bull thistle is a remarkable plant, growing unnoticed for a year before it bursts up and turns deep purple. Its defense mechanism of painful spikes keeps anything from wanting to mess with it. And then just before it turns brown and withers away, it releases 300 seeds surrounded by a feathery orb that will allow the seeds to travel and establish a new population.
That bull thistle is one formidable opponent.