Thursday, March 22, 2012

Attack of the lawn thistles!!!!

This is not a B-rated movie from the 50s. This is my backyard.

Obviously, this would normally be a suboptimal situation. However, with a twenty-month-old baby, who I hope will fall in love with outdoor play, this is a downright terrible turn of events. Thistles are, classically, the symbol of neglected or diseased land; of malcontent and decay. Or, as Hamlet would say, "an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." Not in my backyard, than you very much.

My relationship with thistles has, however, been somewhat confused. In my various travels through the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland, I admired beautifully cultivated thistle gardens. Those old-world varieties are capable of noggin-sized deep purple blooms any gardener would be proud of. The thistle is actually the national plant of Scotland, and is there propagated to purple perfection. According to legend, some Norse invaders tried to ambush a Scottish village in the middle of the night. Right before the charge, one of the manly bare-footed warriors stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain, alerting the Scottish sentries to the Norse presence. So the day (or night, rather) was saved (for the Scottish at least, that is). Just goes to show that the definition of a weed is simply a beautiful plant in the wrong place. The wrong place for those thistles is my back yard.

I thought I had a lot of them a couple days ago, but each time I went outside I see still more thistles! Where are they all coming from?

The thistle is apparently the Trojan Horse of plants: you can't see what's happening until they suddenly surprise you and take over. They spread seed everywhere from July to September up here in Zone 4b, and they thrive with little competition. This seed grows little florets in the fall, if they can, at which time they seek to establish a root structure. If they can do that before the first killing frost, you will see them again in all their serrated glory in the spring. Thus, an early killing frost would eliminate much of the thistle threat. This year, however, we had a very mild winter and a very early spring. The upshot? The thistles thrived. Additionally, the grass and all its competing "weeds"-- yarrow, dandelion, chamomile-- haven't appeared yet as they are slower in growth than the terrible thistle. The result is thistle takeover.

There is though an old-fashioned and fail-safe method to kill these little buggers: regular table salt. Just take the canister outside and sprinkle a good amount in the center of the floret. I used to watch my mother do this every spring as a little girl. This is how it works: if you've ever rubbed a thistle leaf you've noticed (after your initial shock of pain) that they're pretty succulent. The thistle needs this extra fluid to grow. The salt desiccates the leaves and through the plant's circulatory system, the root, thus killing the plant. Voila.

After using all the salt I had in the house (which is a significant amount, as I keep plenty on hand for canning, salting, and pickling), I went to the local grocery and bought another five pounds. When the cashier looked at me askance, I explained what I was doing. She shrugged and replied, "Oh, I always just use an herbicide."I could not suppress a shudder. Putting extra sodium chloride on your lawn and then into the water table probably isn't great, but it's sure a lot better than introducing chemicals-- especially unnecessarily. Yuck. At least the salt is a naturally occurring mineral.

That being said, there is another thing you can do with your thistles: you can eat them. (That's right, you knew I was going to get there eventually.) Thistles have a reputation for being nutritive and healing; the Ancient Greeks advised chewing leaves for minor headaches or body pain, while today's more daring chefs add young greens to a saute or entree. Some herbalists claim that tea made from crushed thistle seed protects against and even helps heal liver damage, while nearly all agree that the plant has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. I personally have never tried this before. If one of my targets manages to escape my notice, perhaps this will be the next experiment.

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