WEED (PART II)
As the summer sun summons ever more vegetal monstrosities from their slumber deep beneath our unassuming soils, this month we continue our exploration into some of the more rampant weeds that love to run wild through our gardens, uninvited but not necessarily entirely unloved. It is July and for the next two months, if you are growing food, flowers, or anything else, you are also growing all manner of plant that you didn’t ask for alongside them, and you will either have to accept their place in your world or labor for hours every week under the high and humid sun to try and make this garden microverse you’ve curated so boldly bend to your will. Your call, I’m not here to tell you how to live your life. Good luck out there.
You do not win with oxalis because you cannot win with oxalis. Like giant cockroaches in the Southern summer, you can only accept oxalis’ inevitable place in the life and society of your garden.
Virtually impossible to pull up from the garden, oxalis blessedly only graces the typical New Orleans landscape from mid-autumn to mid-spring, dying back into tiny nodules that riddle the middle-depths of your soil for the hotter months of the year so as to make way for other noxious weeds.
Fortunately, oxalis is actually a very tasty treat, reminiscent of tart grapes dipped in lemonade then dried and flattened into clover-like copycats. Truly, they are an amazing addition to any salad; and purportedly when steeped in water and mixed with sugar they make for a killer lemonade substitute. There are delightful purple ornamental varieties of the plant available at your local garden center, and we even had a failed fancy restaurant here in the Bywater that bore (well, the building still bears) its very name, vindicating and validating the relativity of the term “weed” with its chosen homage.
Medicinally, the high oxalic acid content in oxalis (see what the English language did there?) can be used to treat a wide and disparate variety of ailments, including UTIs, snakebites, hookworms, and scurvy. Now imagine a pirate suffering from all these ailments simultaneously, rolling around in your fields of oxalis, eating it up by the handful, so grateful, yar.
I am only writing about clover to shame the lawn-loving monocropping dweebs of the universe who would find in their dark shallow hearts a hatred for this helpful little plant just for being in their yards.
Clover is a boon to any ecosystem small or large and should be treated with love and respect under pretty much any and all circumstances. Smart farmers know this: Clover is a primary cover crop. It is a nitrogen fixer, meaning it pulls plants’ most desired nutrient from the air and infuses it into the soil for future use by non-nitrogen fixing plants, which is most plants.
Clover also brings all the bees to the yard with its tasty little fluff ball flowers, feeding pollinator populations with ease and subtle beauty. And of course they bring good luck and hours (or at least minutes) of screenless entertainment for children seeking luck far and wide, drawing them closer to the natural world on their search for prosperity and thus finding it, even if the four-leafed clover remains elusive.
Clover is not a weed and you should count yourself lucky if it graces you with its presence.
Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
If it appears in your yard, you need to do your best to destroy it before it destroys your house. To my mind, Cat’s Claw is the single most invasive and destructive plant in New Orleans; although if you’re not a homeowner or don’t have a vested interest in your home’s integrity one way or another, I reckon you can just enjoy it for its beauty. The way its vines weave into and around old structures is romantically evocative of the kind of post-human dystopian urban landscape I want to live in on the other side of our world-destroying present reality. The flowers are pretty cute too.
Cat’s Claw pretty much only thrives in the liminal spaces between dirt and structure, so in terms of growing food, Cat’s Claw very infrequently gets in the way. Also, even though it should be discouraged from living here, the bark of Cat’s Claw is an exceptionally potent medicinal. It has fiercely antiviral properties, and has been shown in the scientific world to have potential uses against Alzheimer’s, cancer, and arthritis. It’s also great for a variety of butt and butt-adjacent stuff, from ulcers to colitis to hemorrhoids to parasites to leaky bowel syndrome.
It is very hard to kill. But you have to try. And when you do, save its bark to honor its life and extend your own. Ouroboros y’all.
Torpedograss (Panicum repens)
I would love to go on another anti-lawn guy rant here and shame the single-grass-species-loving gas huffers of the universe for being against this particular plant in their yard. But every now and again the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, and so it is with Torpedograss.
So named because of the sharp points it uses to emerge forcefully from the ground with expedient force, this grass was introduced to the United States as a forage crop sometime in the 19th century, and it has been wreaking havoc on the American South ever since, especially in wet, low areas such as coastal Louisiana and, well, all of Florida.
Torpedograss has a rhizomatic growth pattern, meaning it shoots long shoots underground that then sprout out grass tufts skyward, and as such is decentralized and very hard to kill. Also, its aforementioned namesake spikes can poke right through weed cloth, newspapers, and even cardboard. It is also a huge fan of finding its way into raised garden beds and claiming the whole space in a borderline irreparable fashion.
Tearing up this weed can be very satisfying, but rarely will you be able to decimate it entirely by doing so. I would recommend burning it with a weed torch if you want to stay organic, or covering up Torpedograss-infested spaces with cardboard and growing over top of it on fresh dirt, even while knowing full well that a few seasons deep, the Torpedograss will find its way back to you.
There is nothing good about this plant. I won’t recommend using glyphosate to kill it because it is against my religion. But there is no reason to keep it around if you can find a way to get rid of it. Keeping your garden full and diverse with plants that won’t allow Torpedograss room to breathe is your best healthy bet for creating a microclimate without this foreign and unstoppable scourge ransacking your ever-loving garden beds.
illustrations Rachel Speck