Weed mars prairie enjoyment

September 5, 2011


Every summer, almost every day, I go out in nature with my mind set on murder. Sericea lespedeza is my quarry, an innocuous-looking plant that spreads like a virus. It can out-compete even native grass. I’ve spent hundreds of hours spraying this loathsome nemesis and killed thousands of individuals. And yet, I still find survivors taunting me, sometimes within inches of my tire marks from earlier raids. How could I have missed them? The plants recently set their flowers, guaranteeing that they will be back next year.

On my outings, I’ve occasionally come across a strange plant known as Cuscuta pantagona Engelm, alias field dodder. The weed book describes it as a “dense mat of yellowish, leafless, threadlike, branching vine.” To me, it resembles a decomposing net, like the kind fishermen use to catch bait fish — or one of those 2,500 pages bills Congress likes to churn out to stifle economic growth. It’s one of many botanical curiosities that make life in the country interesting. And since I rarely see it, I’ve given field dodder scarcely a thought — until this summer, when I came across a sprawling infestation of it.

The spectacle was horrifying: A vast web of stringy fibers was crawling over acres of precious prairie. For a moment, I forgot about sericea lespedeza. Field dodder had my attention. It was on the move. Apparently, something had happened in the environment, some secret door had opened and this abnormal alien had seized the opportunity to run amok. “Doddering” conveys harmlessness and frailty. But a little research informed me that field dodder is “a plant from a horror movie,” a parasite that uses “fangs” to suck the life out of other plants. Also known ominously as “witches shoelaces” and “strangle vine,” field dodder has no leaves, essentially no roots. This creature from nature’s grab bag of grotesques hardly seems to be alive.

The sinister thing about field dodder is that it doesn’t find its victims by chance. It “sniffs” them out, follows their scent and then strikes. (Researchers are working to find which part of dodder acts as its nose.) This faceless, homely-looking derelict seems to harbor a kind of malevolence. Moreover, if it can smell, perhaps it can also, in some inscrutable way, “see.” I shuddered at the thought that, as I passed by on my four-wheeler, it had been watching me.

You may ask why a professed nature lover would declare war on natural things. The answer is that if I “let nature take its course,” my prairie restoration project — which has been a boon to wildlife — would be doomed. In a few years I would have a monolithic crop of lespedeza. Thorny hedge trees would choke out all other life. And now field dodder threatened. I added it to my “most wanted” enemies list.

I could win the war on sericea lespedeza if I abandoned spot spraying and blanketed the meadows with chemical. But that would mean losing purple prairie clover, partridge pea, catclaw sensitivebriar, Illinois bundleflower, Maximilian sunflower, butterfly milkweed, blacksamson, gayfeather and dozens of other beautiful plants beloved by bugs and birds.

Field dodder is another matter. According to what I’ve read, it can be exterminated only by killing the plants it feeds on, which sounds like destroying the village in order to save it. I console myself with the thought that in the last dozen years, plagues of ragweed, heath aster, yellow nut sedge, musk thistle and tall thistle have come and gone. I must wait until next year to see what field dodder has in store for me.

Meantime, the September prairie is lovely to behold. The hillsides are covered with golden sunflowers and glowing Indian grass. Butterflies and bees and migrant birds are in the fields. But my sleep is troubled with visions of field dodder, creeping toward the house, trying the windows and the doors, violating the peace of the country with its hideous laughter, sniffing me out, baring its fangs.

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


xdcr 6 years, 9 months ago

You can thank the Kansas Wildlife Dept. for introducing Sericea lespedeza to Kansas. The State sowed the lespedeza in food plots at State lakes for wildlife to feed on. Guess they didn't do their homework.

JohnBrown 6 years, 9 months ago

Let's be fair. Kansas introduced it in the early 1900's, mostly as erosion control.. The seeds are small, about the size of alfalfa seed and sometimes used by upland game birds. As for 'homework', it's still legal to plant this noxious weed in all our neighboring states except Colorado.

I've got an upland prairie remnant I've been nursing along for about 20 years. Serica showed up in it about 15 years ago, and tho I spot spray it's still there.

As much as I dislike Serica and dodder, you do have to admire how it is that these pests make a living.

Ken Lassman 6 years, 9 months ago

I've had similar luck as you, George, on the sericea front. I have a couple of small but persistent patches in my CRP, too. Nothing short of a biweekly jaunt with the hand held sprayer keeps this nemesis in check. It seems that there is always a small but significant number of these plants that stay very small and innocuous most of the growing season, putting on a burst of growth at the last minute, enough to flower and go to seed right before the first killing frost--an excellent strategy, I'm afraid. That's why this time of year I pick off the plant at ground level in addition to spraying it so that those seeds won't mature and germinate. If you try to pull them out of the ground, you'll never do it, but if you grab the stem at near the bottom and make a flicking downward and sideways motion, they snap right off, ready to be carried off to a plastic bag headed for the landfill.

Personally, I'm not at all concerned with the dodder in my area, which never seems to get the upper hand for very long. Hope I'm right!

Commenting has been disabled for this item.