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August 20, 2003

Frederick's Unfinished Battle

Joe Volz

While the nation has been focusing on the international terrorism threat, another enemy has been going wild in the U.S., taking over more and more territory right here in Frederick County.

The enemy seems virtually unstoppable, despite the best efforts of county, state and federal authorities.

The enemy is all around us - weeds.

Experts, who study such matters, call them "noxious" weeds, which crowd out legitimate plant life and just make a general and unsightly nuisance of themselves. The thistle, with is prickly leaves and purple flowers, is a particular menace, according to those in the know.

As a city boy, who just arrived in town a few months ago from Washington, I was blissfully unaware of the dilemma.

It wasn't until the Frederick News-Post ran a page one story recently about the threat, that I realized how badly we are losing the war, even though we have a county weed control team out there every day battling these noxious weeds.

Tim Pry, Frederick county weed control coordinator, was quoted by the News-Post as blaming the weather. The constant downpour over the last few months has resulted in "a tremendous increase in noxious weeds.

"We're doing all we can," he lamented. "Canada thistle is the worst. It's a perennial that comes back off the same root."

Mr. Pry says that like so many things in life, timing is important. "People wait until the last minute," he says, "to attack the weeds."

It's against the law to allow those thistle seeds to spread. So far, no one has been hauled off to jail charged with letting the weed go to seed, however.

And Allison Alexander, a Mount Airy landscaper who has taken on a thistle or two, wonders how in the world the weed cops would ever be able to enforce the law, anyhow.

Ms. Alexander doesn't mind dealing with the little plant because it gives up so easily.

"You can pull it right out without a fight," she says. "Now, clover, that's a problem."

But the feds don't have the same admiration for the thorny nuisance as Ms. Alexander does.

In fact, they have sent out a wanted poster on Canada Thistle, a.k.a. Creeping Thistle, warning that the plant can grow four feet high andsprout inch purple or white flowers in July and August.

The experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest that farmers launch a three-pronged attack, using chemical, biological and mechanical means. But before you spray any chemicals on the plants this fall, the best time, the experts say you should check with Mr. Pry and the local weed control gang at 301-694-1594 to make sure you are not using some banned lethal chemical which could do more harm than good.

As for the biological approach, the government says farmers may be able to crowd out the little plants, which need sunlight as well as rain, by planting some dense crop like alfalfa before the thistle gets established.

The mechanical method means mowing while, at the same time, spraying.

If all that fails, an expert out at Montana State University, who has a passion for thistle eradication, has an idea. Bret E. Olson says that goats are the answer. Besides munching on tin cans, goats love thistle. Mr. Olson says goats have a large mouth, so they can easily strip off flower heads, containing the seeds.

All well and good, say the farmers, represented by the Maryland Farm Bureau, but they claim, the government itself, is a reluctant warrior. The bureau says that every government agency at least ought to obey the law and control weeds on its own property.

Thistle is on the prohibited list of the Federal Seed Act, along with a long list of other weeds from quack grass to witch weeds.

And the Farm Bureau says state and federal legislators need to do more.

The bureau says 100 percent control of the weeds is not "realistically achievable by any or all of the control methods outlined in current state law."

The bureau argues that the law is for the birds. Bird seed is not regulated and mixtures of noxious weed seed have been creeping in. The farmers want a state crackdown on tainted bird feed. . However, no account of the war on weeds would be complete without at least listening to those who admire the thistle. After all, one man's weed is another man's beautiful flower.

(By the way, just who determines what is a weed, anyhow, is not the subject of this discourse and will be left to the nation's leading weed experts.)

But in Scotland, the thistle is seen as virtually a national hero, or heroine (I will let the weedologists determine the sex of the flower.)

The story is told by the Highland website that "a long time ago when Scotland was being ravaged by Viking invaders, a group of Scottish fighting men were resting in a field, unaware that a raiding party was about to attack under the cover of darkness. But the Vikings, shoeless, no doubt, to keep the noise down, crept right into a thistle patch, letting out such screams that the defenders were awakened and drove the aggressors into the North Sea.

The Scots founded the Order of the Thistle, which exists to this day. As a matter of fact, sales of thistle memorabilia on the Highland Scots website are booming. The most popular item is a bumper sticker announcing "Kiss My Thistle."

So, now alerted to the menace, I must confess I have gained grudging respect for a plant which I used to think was a type of clover. I wouldn't grow any in my backyard, though - if I had a backyard at my West Patrick Street apartment.

On the other hand, don't sign me up for any vigilante crew to hunt these plants down. My philosophy is live and let live.

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