Tag Archives: invasive plants

Introducing Convolvulus arvensis

Bindweed

While researching the spread and dispersion of noxious invasive species of fauna and flora, one of the issues I keep noting isn’t just how many really vile invasives were introduced deliberately, or even inadvertently. What stands out is how many invasives get out of control mostly because they’re just attractive enough to avoid utter extermination. I get a giggle over how heather spread throughout South Island of New Zealand thanks to the accidental importation of heather seeds as an unavoidable contaminant in sacks of oats, and how the early explosion of heather throughout the island was suggested as a deliberate attempt by Scottish immigrants to mark New Zealand as Scottish territory forever by introducing the national flower. (Speaking as someone of Scot ancestry, you should all be so lucky. After hearing tales from relations in Aotearoa about Riddell family history, if we’d wanted to claim South Island, everyone else would have known it when they woke up with their throats cut. Twice. And that’s just for uttering in public the filthiest four-letter words you could ever utter at a Riddell family gathering: “Last Call”.)

Bindweed 2

When looking at bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), it’s not hard to see why the US Department of Agriculture lists it as a noxious plant in Texas. It grows in soils so poor that even bluebonnets have problems. It climbs up and buries just about any other plant in the vicinity. The tendrils are tough enough that I can see where Frank Herbert got the inspiration for shigawire. Trying to run through a field infested with bindweed is a good way to break an ankle, leg, or neck. (I will say that running through a field of bindweed is still better than running through a patch of saw greenbrier: I still have scars on my legs, right above my knees, from where I did that nearly a third of a century ago. I think trying to remove my lower legs with a bandsaw would have caused less damage and hurt considerably less.) I’ve jammed up Weedeaters by getting the head too close to a bindweed clump, having the line snag a tendril, and watching as the whole clump tried to murder the Weedeater in a display of self-sacrifice, and I even did that once with a riding lawnmower when I worked as a groundskeeper for Texas Instruments. Not only does bindweed laugh at most pesticides, but its seeds are so popular with small birds that no matter how many times you think you’ve wiped it out, it comes back the next season unless you fit every last sparrow, wren, and finch in the time zone with diapers.

Bindweed 3

Unfortunately, as with Japanese honeysuckle, you have a determined and virulent invasive with enough charisma that non-gardeners don’t immediately scream “Get me the flamethrower!” when they see it. I have occasional nightmares involving a little old lady somewhere who managed to fill her garden with every last invasive in the US, and everything’s absolutely fine until the day she leaves the gate open and everything escapes. In this nightmare, bindweed is the decorative bedding alongside the Brazilian pepper trees and beneath the Ailanthus.

Bindweed 4

On a purely scientific level, passing clumps of bindweed has its moments. About one flower out of one hundred has a tinge of pink to it, which is particularly noticeable on cloudy days. I also suspect that it has quite the ultraviolet signature, judging by the number of insects racing to the flowers in the early morning. Oh, and small harmless snakes such as garter snakes and ground snakes love to hide within the tangles as they chase prey. It’s not all that bad: I just don’t want it in my front yard.

Introducing Lonicera japonica

Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica

At the moment, the North Texas area is truly in the middle of spring. We’re past any reasonable chance of a freeze (although the area reached just short of freezing 39 years ago today, so it could happen), with about three weeks to a month before things start to get torrid. (Of course, as mentioned last year, it’s not truly summer until you can’t walk into a grocery store anywhere in the state without at least four old ladies accosting you to tell you “It’s HOT,” as if we always get snow flurries and sleet on the Fourth of July. Last year, I went grocery shopping early, because otherwise the place sounded like a pterosaur rookery.) When we aren’t being dragged to Oz by tornadoes (and the current count of last week’s April Madness was 17 in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area), the wind is mild, the sun tolerable, and the nights incredible. The evening air this time of the year makes the worst summers worthwhile, because it’s cool enough to get active while warm enough to leave the jackets and sweaters at home.

Right now, my best friend and I are getting particular mileage from those evenings, and I mean that literally. He bought a new Harley last summer, and spends the dusk and evening exploring exactly how far and how fast his monster machine will take him before he resigns himself to having to go home so he can get up for work in the morning. I’m no different, even if I’m on a mountain bike instead of a motorcycle. Back roads and bare paths, spooking armadillos and the occasional great horned owl because they didn’t hear me until we were close enough to touch…yeah, it’s that time of the year.

It’s during these perambulations that my best friend and I come into contact with one of North Texas’s most hidden-in-plain-sight invasive plants, usually as we’re buzzing right past. The air’s already clean, and then a quick whiff of fresh sweetness, and then it’s gone like a kiss from an ex-girlfriend. It’s Japanese honeysuckle season.

In all of my travels, the only other invasive plant I’ve come across that inspires as mixed a set of emotions as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) in Texas is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) in Oregon. In areas outside of Portland, Himalayan blackberry is an absolute menace once it’s established. It grows in huge clumps as much as eight meters tall. The canes are bandsaw blades with chlorophyll, and moving through a patch with anything other than plate mail is a great way to see how much blood the human body can lose at once. The plant gets established through seeds, cane tips, and runners from rhizomes, and extensive application of fire just encourages it. Gardeners and farmers spit and curse upon mention of the name, because clearing an established stand just means that the space is clear for a few birds to leave fresh seeds with their droppings and start the cycle again.

What makes it rough is that while the whole plant is a nightmare, the blackberries themselves are absolute heaven. At one point in the summer of 1996, my ex-wife and I stood at one spot in Washington State, right along the Columbia River, and picked berries for a solid hour without moving our feet except to get new containers. For most Portlanders, the Himalayan blackberry is becoming the New Zealand brushtail possum of local flora: yes, it’s wiped out whenever encountered, but summers also aren’t the same any more without local restaurants offering blackberry margaritas.

That’s about the situation with Japanese honeysuckle out here. Just whisper the name to gardeners, and wait for the shrieks. I understand that Debbi Middleton killed a big stand of the stuff all by herself, wielding a Garden Weasel like a naginata, in a classic battle that begs to be recreated by Peter Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mounted the tuber over her fireplace with the killing strike turned out toward the couch, so she could gaze upon it and snicker. When members of local garden groups get together to talk about the latest infestation, and they start mumbling “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit,” they aren’t kidding.

I understand. I sympathize. I join in with their justifiable wars against hackberry, greenbriar, and cottonwood seedlings. It’s just that I look at a clump like the one above, and remember how many times I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike in an attempt to stop and savor for a few seconds. Most people need a gallon of coffee to wake up in the morning. All I need is a bicycle, a bit of Hawkwind or Yavin 4 in the earbuds, and that insane scent in my nostrils to get me going. And so it goes.