Weed Warriors vs. Common Mullein

Part 3.  Camp Polk Meadow, Sisters, Oregon—invasive weed pulling with Deschutes Land Trust

Screenshot 2018-10-25 13.34.31The Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), also headquartered in Bend, sponsors regular Weed Warrior trips to conservation areas near Bend. Have you ever tried to keep 100 square feet of garden free of weeds in late summer? I usually give up around mid-July. But the undaunted DLT Weed Warriors make it their mission three Saturdays per month to pull invasive and noxious weeds from targeted sections of the land trust’s 9000+ acres of conservation lands. Yikes—that’s like 14 square miles. 

The DLT’s mission is “to work cooperatively with landowners to conserve land for wildlife, scenic views and local communities.” The Trust conserves and stewards land and riversides that meet these selection criteria.

Five of us carpooled about 30 minutes north of Bend to weed the Camp Polk Meadow section of meadow alongside the Wychus Creek, a river of special concern to the DLT.

While there are a number of noxious weeds there, we focused only on the seed stalks of the common mullein weed, Verbascum thapsus. You’ve seen this weed everywhere—it has a dozen or more common names, my favorites being old man’s flannel, velvet plant (both due to its fuzzy leaves) and Quaker rouge, allegedly because Quaker women used it to provoke a pink irritation-rash on their cheeks in lieu of using makeup. Mullein has a 2-year growth cycle, like parsley. The first year it makes a fuzzy rosette of leaves, and the second year it goes into reproduction gear. As instructed, I clipped off the torch-like seed stalks, carefully bagged them, and pulled first-year stalkless plants from the ground. 

Titian Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Titian. Museo del Prado

Sisyphus would have been  proud of us for persisting. Every stalk we bagged apparently prevented some 100-240,000 seeds from self-sowing. Still, it was disheartening to imagine next year’s crop. Any stalk that got past us could spread 100,000 or more seeds, which are said to be viable for 35 or more years. Rats. I think my rock just rolled down the hill again. And yet, the Weed Warrior teams persist!

A little googling about mullein taught me that this weed has some folksy uses, like cowboy toilet paper, shoe insulation, and friction fire starting—all useful in an armageddon scenario. Imagine how handy it would be having natural rouge growing all about us if Mary Kay doesn’t make it through nuclear winter. But fuzzy skin-irritating toilet paper? I’ll pass—I expect FEMA will toss us all a roll or two of paper towels.

Noxious weeds are generally described as invasive non-native plants, which establish and reproduce quickly when introduced, threatening or causing harm to environment (wildlife habitat), economy (crops, livestock), or human health. The Pacific Northwest Weed Guide doesn’t list mullein as “noxious,” but the DLT has good reason to remove it from this floodplain. The DLT began restoring this meadow in 2009, in order to “restore and enhance high quality riparian wetland habitat along the stream corridor.” They began by revegetating the creek corridor to stabilize the river banks and to mimic the native plant species and composition that may have historically occurred in Camp Polk Meadow. The richer and more diverse the plant community, the better chance of outcompeting invasive weeds. Diversity also enhances native wildlife habitat, and may contribute to lower stream temperature, which is critical to the survival of trout and salmon. The plantings list is quite similar to the ONDA riparian restoration plants (you can read about them in part 5), and includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous wetland and riparian species including sedges, rushes, grasses, and forbs.

Mullein has “naturalized,” i.e. grows wild now, in the lower 48, Canada, Europe, Australia…from sea level to 8000 ft elevation. It colonizes disturbed areas quickly: roadsides, abandoned industrial sites, waste areas, river banks and corridors, forest cuts, scrublands, juniper and scrub oak savannas. Most importantly, because it is so prolific (remember the 200K-seed stalks?) it pushes out native grasses and shrubs, and creates the reason for our search and destroy mission in this painstakingly nativized meadow.

Screenshot 2018-10-25 14.58.17

Deschutes Land Trust photo

As Camus concluded in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a [person’s] heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The long-time Weed Warriors are every bit as persistent as Sisyphus, and by Zeus, they do look happy!  

 

Volunteer hours worked with DLT: 3

Another two thumbs up experience. 2 thumbs up 14.05.29

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