Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia
Recently I have been re-thinking my personal war against kochia, a common noxious weed, otherwise known as tumbleweed, romanced in song by the Sons of the Pioneers, engraved in our western history by Zane Gray. One day the thought tumbled into my head, at that moment vacant and dreamy, that nobody ever wins a war. How true, I thought. So why do I stand out in the blazing sun, my hands encased in protective gloves, ripping kochia up by the roots? Oh, my aching back!

Year after year, since I moved back to the Milk River Valley, I have, armed with spades, hoes, poison and my own two hands, pulled, hacked, drowned and tried to banish this weed from my yard. By the time I have cleared the front yard, the back yard is overgrown. I attack the back yard, clean it and clear it, to then find a new healthy crop thumbing its nose at me from the front yard.

From early spring until snowfall, this has been my battle plan. No more. I declare an armistice. From now on, dear kochia, along with nature, I shall nurture you. Well, maybe I won’t go that far. There is a better way to spend my days than fighting this ever-present weed . . . er, plant. Surely I have more brains than a bit of vegetable matter. Especially a specimen that dries up and gets prickly in the winter.  I, on the other hand, in the winter . . . oh, never mind.
What makes a plant adapt to a new environment? Why will it, poor unloved orphan, cling to its adoptive mother earth when all it receives is kicks and scorn? These are serious questions.

Kochia, detested weed, was originally brought to the plains from the steppes of Russia, to be used as an ornamental backdrop in landscaping projects. I can well imagine its puny green brain cells peering out and thinking, “Dude, I like it here. Not much rainfall—perfect. Hot sun in summer—perfect. Cold wind in winter—perfect. Open plains upon which to spill my prolific seed once the wind has uprooted me and sent me tumbling, wending my way across country. It’s home away from home.”

Yep, brought here to be landscape backdrop. And why not? In season, kochia fills out, round and bushy, green as can be, and grows about seven feet tall if left to its own devices. If you squinch your eyes just right, it’s kind of pretty. Plant your day lilies and peonies in front. Take photos to send to all your relatives back east. They’ll think you live in paradise. And, best of all, you never have to plant it year after year. Who could ask for anything more?
So the kochia, which was never asked its opinion, was reluctantly dragged half way around the globe, transplanted to the new world and flourished. Soon, too soon, it found itself in laboratories, the victim of science, desperate experiments contrived to discover a means to eradicate the subject of the experiment.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the weed was perfecting its life cycle. Emerging in spring, tall and full in summer, turning brilliant fiery red in autumn, dry and tumbling across the plains in the winter, insuring a lively crop of offspring to green up the next spring. Soon kochia achieved its destiny—it filled the valleys and liberally sprinkled the hills. In a good year, it ignored fences, tearing them down from sheer weight and volume. In a bad year, desperate ranchers cut it, baled it, and fed it to starving cattle.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, chortling scientists developed a killer, the gardener’s friend. They called it, in true western fashion, “Round-up”.  All through the prairies, gardeners, ranchers and farmers suited up, grabbed the sprayer and headed out the door to cut the kochia off at the pass, yelling, “Kill! Kill!”

Until one day, kochia, its nature outwitting deadly science, sucked in the poison, licked its lips and grew eight feet tall. It’s here. It’s now. It’s won.

So here’s my plan, now that I’m no longer at war with a weed. When visitors ask me to identify that beautiful tall, green bushy plant behind the baby’s breath and iris and poppies and daisies, I’ll mumble and hang my head and say something like, “It was here when I got here. Grows real pretty, don’t it?”
Then in the winter, I’ll drizzle it with tinsel and twinkling lights and sell it to my relatives back east as Prairie Christmas Trees. Whadda ya think?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 6, 2012

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