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WEED-WHACKER TAKES NO PRISONERS IN WAR OF MULTIFLORA ROSES

These shorter September days don't leave a lot of time for day-job farmers such as myself to get much done before dark. Most days you're lucky to steal an hour or so before supper. It's not a lot, but working at some simple chore can smooth out the ragged frenzy of the workday and ease you into the evening. I don't know what people without farms do.

I yank at the starter rope on the pump. The motor coughs, and I pull out the choke a little. It catches on the next pull, sending a heavy stream of water arcing into the cows' tub. While it runs, I walk away from the well and sit on the creek bank.

I have five minutes to wait. I wonder how it would be if I had to hand-pump 300 gallons or lift the water out of the well with a pail. Instead, the gas motor does it for me for about a nickel's worth of fuel. It's one of a hundred such conveniences that we take for granted. I often marvel at the effectiveness of such simple machines.

Last night we processed sweet corn and dumped the shucks and cobs in the truck. I drive it down along the pasture fence and shovel off the load to the herd, which makes a big fuss about it, then hollers for more. Eventually they go back to grazing.

I drive up the hill to the fence at the top of the hayfield where we plan to move the cows in a couple of days. It's been a year since they've been in this section, and the fence has all but disappeared under a mass of weeds and vines that have emerged from the woods. Chopping the jungle back from the wire is going to take longer than the daylight will permit.

The fence skirts the lip of an escarpment above Johnson Creek. For some unknown reason, it's a neighborhood for weeds of troubled character, noxious creatures, most of which we don't see elsewhere around the farm.

A lush growth of wild cucumber has claimed the fence for its arbor with its twisty tendrils and odd, spiky pods. The plant, Echinocystis lobata, though related to the common cucumber, is inedible. In fact, the prickly fruits, which resemble little hedgehogs, have a reputation for spreading their seeds with explosive force, zinging them 20 feet. The wild cuke I'm chopping looks too immature to become a hand grenade this afternoon. I hope so, anyway. I don't want to become a headline in a supermarket tabloid: Killer Cuke KOs Farmer!

I chop at the stubborn vegetation and pull it off the wire. I come upon a stout pokeweed that towers over me. Hungry pioneers consumed the leafy tips of pokeweed after boiling them in multiple changes of water. But woe to anyone who ate of the purple clustered fruit, which might be lethally mistaken for plump wild grapes. Frugal pioneers used pokeweed berry juice for ink, composing all sorts of correspondence, not just poison-pen letters.

Underneath the fence is a swath of ground cherries. This curious plant produces small tomatoes inside papery green husks. The fruit is edible when mature but poisonous when unripe.

Clinging to the fence posts is another fearsome plant -- a lurking green stem of poison ivy. Being immune to this nasty plant is a blessing for which I am most grateful. How can susceptible people ever be comfortable in wooded places?

Not all the inhabitants of this dangerous neighborhood ply their trade with poisons. Some seek to stab the unwelcome. I stop to catch my breath before launching an attack on a phalanx of berry bushes. Even more formidable is an igloo-shaped multiflora rose. Come too close to this thorny bush and you can be caught like a fly in a spider's web.

Multiflora rose was introduced to the countryside by some naive conservationist who envisioned it as an environmentally friendly cattle fence. That it was. Unfortunately, birds spread the wild rose over the fields after eating the seedy rose hips. The thorny bushes are the bane of tractor tires everywhere. I hack the woody branches away from the fence, unable to get close enough to the trunk to do it any permanent damage.

Dusk deepens, and I shoulder my weapon and abandon the edge of the escarpment to the rogues of the plant kingdom. I may have driven them back a few feet, but surely in the darkness they are plotting their creeping return.

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