Driving from Mazama to Winthrop, no doubt many travelers have noticed the sign on Highway 20 that states: “Weeds are a Pain in the Grass.” Included on the sign are crossed flags, U.S. and Canada, with a number to call for information. It turns out there is a wealth of information about invasive plants and weeds and no shortage of boards, committees, and societies dedicated to preventing their spread.
There are many variations of the definition of a weed, but, simply put, it is “a plant in the wrong place;” one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants. Noxious weeds are of the worst sort. Super-aggressive, they crowd out native species that fish and wildlife depend on and disrupt agricultural production.
Washington state first passed a noxious weed law in 1881 to fight the spread of Canada thistle, a weed that was accidentally brought in by settlers and threatened farmland. Currently, there are comprehensive RCWs (Revised Code of Washington) and WACs (Washington Administrative Code) that establish all property owners’ responsibility for helping prevent and control the spread of noxious weeds. Since plants grow without regard to property lines or country boundaries, everyone’s cooperation is needed to combat them.
Many in Mazama are doing their share to battle the invaders (both those classified as noxious and the garden-variety weeds) such as various knapweed species (aka Barnaby), yellow salsify, tansy ragwort and Scotch thistle. Others, especially absentee landowners, are daunted by the tenacity of the invasive species that, left unchecked, take over properties, grow bigger and stronger, spread their seeds far and wide, and create a grass fire hazard. Then, there’s imposing, destructive skeletonweed that can grow up to 4 feet tall with a taproot 7 feet deep.
A model for all who are committed to do their share is Mazama resident and retired neurosurgeon Fred Higgins. Fred was first interested in identifying wildflowers when he realized that some imposters with beguiling little blooms were actually bad actors. Take, for instance, the bright yellow flowers resembling snapdragons that are produced by Class B (there are three classes) noxious weed Dalmatian toadflax. Cute, but a mature plant can produce up to 500,000 seeds that can remain viable for 10 years! The plant is described as highly aggressive and difficult to control.
Fred did research, as he had done his entire professional career, and learned extensively about the different invasive plants that he began to realize were prolific on his newly purchased property. Setting out to eradicate them, he transferred his precision surgical skills from dissecting tumors off of brains and spines to dissecting similarly stubborn taproots out of the hard clay soil.
The Washington State Weed Control Board acknowledges the difficulty of controlling many of these species. Frequently, it recommends selective herbicides when the population is out of control. Sometimes biocontrol agents or grazing animals may knock the weeds back. (Fred tried weevils he purchased from a WSU researcher, but does not believe they were successful in controlling hardy knapweed.) The most effective eradicator for most weeds remains good old hand pulling.
That brings us back to Dr. Higgins. Since retiring from his surgery practice, he has pursued a hobby that also requires skill and precision: metalworking. One thing he had figured out in his war on weeds was that the hardware store variety weed diggers were flimsy when they did battle with a stubborn taproot. Thus, he set about fabricating a tool that would reliably do the job. His sturdy tool is the most effective weed digger in Mazama — maybe in the world!
Weeds are best controlled when they are young and when the soil is moist.
Frequently, in the spring, Fred can be seen walking his pristine swaying grass fields, tool in hand, looking for a lone knapweed or salisfy that dared to raise its ugly head amidst his native grasses. He calls it “very zen.”
The Noxious Weed Control Board has a motto: Weed ’em and reap. Clever, but true. To reach your land-use goals, one of its suggestions to “set yourself up to succeed” is to divide large noxious weed infestations into sections and work on one section at a time. That’s what I’ve always called “chunking it.”
Next up: Hooligan! Who?
I will be at Jack’s Hut Friday on Friday (Oct. 18), 4-5 p.m. I’d like to hear from
Mazamans about what they do to “get ready for winter.”