Picking Poison

If you have me over for dinner and ask what I’d like to drink, I’m probably going to disappoint you. My go-to “adult beverages” are wine and, well… wine.  Nothing mixed.  Nothing with a lot of proof on the bottle.  A margarita with Mexican and a beer after a long day in the sun, but otherwise it’s pretty much a glass of Chardonnay or a full-bodied Cabernet. Not much creativity in picking my poison, it seems. Yet that’s not quite true.  Out on my property I’m faced with poison just about every day, as I fight a persistent onslaught of noxious weeds.

Dalmatian toadflax

Noxious weeds make their appearance around here every spring – without fail – just when I’m fooled into thinking this, this is the year they’ll cut me a break and infiltrate someone else’s property instead.  I’ll walk out one morning and seemingly overnight the uninviteds have taken prominent positions among the prairie grass.  Knapweed.  Toadflax.  Mullein.  And the worst of this noxious bunch: thistle.

Weeds annoy most anyone, but noxious weeds deserve a place in Hollywood’s scariest horror flick.  These bad boys earn descriptors like “aggressive invader”, “detrimental to native plants”, and “poisonous to livestock”.  Noxious weeds fall into a family of growees known as “alien plants”, which means they don’t belong here in Colorado.  Nor anywhere else on Earth if you ask me.  Name one redeeming aspect of these pernicious inhabitants.  I can’t, except perhaps I get a solid workout while I struggle to keep them at bay.


Operative phrase there, keep them at bay.  Not kill them.  Most noxious weeds establish an underground root system as strong as chain link fence.  Many are impervious to the most aggressive chemical warfare.  Try yanking out the whole plant and you’ll burn through a bank’s worth of sweat equity.  Better to use something gas-powered instead.  Or a flame thrower.


Yes, Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and seasons of snow, but most of the Centennial State is high and dry desert.  We’re constantly challenged by drought, and in those conditions noxious weeds thrive.  Our county even has a “Noxious Weeds Division”, of the Environmental Division of the Community Services Department.  Send them an email and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about noxious weeds.  Most disturbingly, how they’re here… to… stay.

Let’s get to know these persistent plants a little better:

  • Diffuse knapweed – Picture a tumbleweed.  Large, round, and spiny.  Not very nice to look at.  You can knock off knapweed by severing the single taproot, but, its seeds can still develop on the cut plant.  Time for a bonfire.
  • Dalmatian toadflax – Showy, yellow, snapdragon-like flowers.  One plant can produce a half-million seeds.  The best way to control this bugger is… with bugs.  Can anyone spare some root-boring moths or stem-boring weevils?
  • Common mullein – Starts as an innocent, flat, green “rosette”, then bursts into a ramrod straight stalk, several feet tall.  Mercifully, mullein has a shallow root.  Meanwhile, people think you’re growing corn in your pasture.
  • Canada thistle – Small purple flowers bunched on tall, dark green stalks, replete with thorns and other self-defense mechanisms.  Hand-pulling this freakshow of nature stimulates its growth.  If you ask me, Canada thistle is better named “Satan’s Rosebush”.
I prefer this kind of dalmatian

How do I know the exact species of my noxious weeds?  Because my county’s Noxious Weeds Division tells me… when they send letters threatening to charge for maintenance if I don’t do it myself.  My advice: it’s best to obey the Noxious Weeds Division.


Now for some noxious weed trivia:

  • Worldwide damage caused by noxious weeds: $1.4 trillion USD.
  • Russian thistle lives longer than humans.
  • Giant hogweed (which causes a nasty, blistering skin rash) earns a spot in the Guinness Book as “world’s largest weed”.  Its umbrella-like blooms can hover more than eighteen feet, on stalks three or more inches around.  “Giant” indeed.
  • Lastly… (and my personal favorite), before the chemical embalming process, tansy ragwort was used to line coffins because of its ability to repel vermin.  Hey!  Another redeeming aspect of noxious weeds.

I have a fond weed memory (believe it or not).  When I was a kid, I stayed at my uncle’s house for several days alongside a cousin about the same age.  Somehow my uncle had us weeding his front yard (work in exchange for food?).  Those straight-and-tall weeds looked like a vast army of soldiers.  So that’s how my cousin and I took to the job.  We split the yard down the middle, declared ourselves generals, and started taking down the soldiers one by one.  When the dust cleared and the “bodies” were removed, the battlefield was admirably clean.  We declared victory and went inside for a much-needed shower.

I’ve just returned from another battle with my noxious weeds.  I lopped off dozens of mullein tops with my pruning shears, to shut down their seed spread.  It’s exhausting work and I’m done picking poison for the day.  I could use a drink.  Nothing mixed, of course.  A beer will do just fine.

Some content sourced from the Noxious Weeds and Control Methods guidelines document, State of Colorado, El Paso County, Community Services Department, Environmental Division.

Author: Dave

Three hundred posts would suggest I have something to say… This blog was born from a desire to elevate the English language, highlighting eloquent words from days gone by. The stories I share are snippets of life itself, and each comes with a bonus: a dusted-off word I hope you’ll go on to use more often. Read “Deutschland-ish Improvements” to learn about my backyard European wish list. Try “Slush Fun” for the throwback years of the 7-Eleven convenience store. Or drink in "Iced Coffee" to discover the plight of the rural French cafe. On the lighter side, read "Late Night Racquet Sports" for my adventures with our latest moth invasion. As Walt Whitman said, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here then, my verse. Welcome to Life In A Word.

13 thoughts on “Picking Poison”

  1. For years I battled Canadian Thistle, so I really “get it” Dave. My battles were confined to a small area and were because of my neighbor who had multiple thistle feeders for the finches. Every day, they loaded all the feeders and tossed the spent seed at the side of my house. I just had a mulched area about 25 feet long as I had a huge Pyracantha bush visible to the street, but the area was not visible to anyone but me in the backyard. It was tough to mow as I had landscape ties, so the answer was mulch, mulch which gets moist and weeds love to grow in it. I noticed thistles growing and said “hey, maybe you could use a bucket for the spent seeds because believe me, there are viable seeds in what you are tossing over the fence and look what they’re doing.” It fell on deaf ears, just like when I asked if they wouldn’t put their basset hound out at 4:00 a.m. and leave it while they got ready for work as it bayed under my bedroom window. They both had factory jobs and left for work at 4:30 a.m. to grab breakfast together before they went to their respective jobs.

    So, I know all about the rhizomes and runners and like you, did not want to use insecticide as I also fed the birds and squirrels in my yard. My mom listened to a gardening show and heard someone with a similar plight. She jotted down “Weed Hound” and this was before the internet and Google, so we asked at a gardening center and they special ordered it for us. You can stand up and push on this gizmo and it will rip those roots out and bring forth a huge thistle specimen (not as tall as Hogweed which I’ve read horror stories about), but huge roots and plants nonetheless. My Weed Hound is now retired as the neighbors and their basset hound and thistle feeders are now terrorizing another neighbor. I see this product advertised on Amazon, but listed as no longer available, however it looks like Ames has a knock-off steel, stand up weeder which displays on the page along with other similar weeders … I will send you the link separately in case the link causes this comment to go to your SPAM filter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew you’d speak up on this one, Linda. You made mention of Canada thistle in one of your posts not so long ago. I didn’t know the seeds were used to feed birds. Ugh. Another good use for a weed I suppose, but the spread you had to deal with sounds as bad as mine. Thank you for the Weed Hound rec. I’ll try anything to avoid chemicals.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it was terrible Dave – I know they had Niger seed socks they hung up for the goldfinches, plus feeders with thistle seeds – all very light seeds which went airborne easily … who tosses the supposedly spent seeds anyway? I worried for mice, though I never saw mice under my bird feeders – the squirrels and mourning doves are ground feeders and took care of spilled seeds. Unless they tossed thistle seeds over the fence – it had to be the bird feeders as they weren’t there long before the problem started. If I didn’t get out there routinely, they’d grow big with huge prickly leaves and I used staining gloves to handle them. The problem is those horizontal roots which the Weed Hound spears and breaks. Ames looks like a good and comparable product – I’ve always had luck with Ames garden tools … neighbors in that house not so much.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. When I clicked on the Amazon link, the Hound Dog product was labeled “currently unavailable”. Got a kick out of that, Linda. Apparently I’m not the only one in the trenches fighting Canada thistle 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha ha – I hope the Ames is a satisfactory knockoff Dave. I liked the concept of not breaking your back with them, but standing up and grabbing them with ease!


  2. Wow, timely post. I just sent a message off to my municipality asking them why the farmer who owns the field south of us doesn’t have to control Canada Thistle. The rest of us are supposed to.
    I’ve tried pulling them, but one thistle soon becomes multiple thistles because of their root systems. This year I turned to chemical control. I use a spray bottle and zap each one individually, avoiding anything growing near it. It will be interesting to see whether I’ve made a major dent in their population!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We resorted to chemical spray as well, Margy, when we realized our pastures were being fairly consumed this year (spring rain followed by summer drought – perfect conditions). Our spray guy said not to bother pulling them; save the back and just lop off the flowers so they don’t spread their seeds. I think they’re here to stay. We’ve lived here in Colorado long enough to believe it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would think getting anything at all to grow in your climate would be a win, weed or otherwise. But I guess not.

    Here in the verdant Midwest, the plants are different but the struggle is the same. Our war has been against honeysuckle, which has been put on Indiana’s list of forbidden plants.

    I think I am your refreshment opposite – wine will do in a pinch, but a Manhattan or a scotch (with a good stout thrown in from time to time).


  4. We have lost many a fruit tree to our harsh conditions (or persistent underground critters). At this elevation and low humidity, it’s pretty much pine or aspen. And plenty of noxious weeds.


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