by Janice Wagar
One balmy summer morning, I noticed large-leafed weeds snaking up the trees and shrubs outside my bedroom window. On days to follow, I could see the vegetation was spreading up even higher and wider.
I grew increasingly alarmed as the weeds threatened to spoil the view and invade my private little woods. When I began to recognize trees and shrubs along the highways completely enshrouded by this same vine, I feared it was taking over the city.
I live in a modest townhouse that is blessed with a lovely wooded lot next door. Because my bedroom window overlooks the glorious green property, I have always taken a proprietary interest in it. As a result, I was overcome with indignation at this weedy interloper. I resolved to do battle with it.
The wooded lot is lower than my lot and is separated by a four-foot high retaining wall. As I walked around and entered from the street, I found it was cool and shady under the trees. It was also swarming with hungry mosquitoes that were delighted to see me. Amid shafts of light streaming down through the leafy canopy of black walnut, box elder and cottonwoods, I could see hundreds of small yellow-green plants with palmate-shaped leaves growing profusely in all directions. The larger plants had totally engulfed other weeds and shrubs, hogging the available sunlight. The mosquitoes lost their menace as I realized the extent of the invasion.
I advanced on the “enemy” and began pulling up as many small plants as I could. I grabbed great handfuls of the fuzzy, sticky vines and flung them at the mosquitoes. However, I soon realized the futility of this approach. I shifted my vengeance to the larger, more insolent weeds snaking their way up the trees and advancing over the retaining wall. I was surprised at how effortlessly the pernicious vines could be uprooted. I was able to draw up long strands of it into balls and easily tossed them aside. I was making great swaths through the most heavily infested areas, but gradually I became exhausted and gave up for the day. My socks were full of cockleburs; I was hot, sweaty and covered with mosquito bites, but I had definitely launched a worthy attack.
Around that time, I came across a magazine article about a noxious weed imported from Japan called kudzu. It was originally thought to be an excellent ground cover, but it spread so wildly that it had become a serious problem in the South. I was certain that I was the first Minnesotan clever enough to discover kudzu in our northern climate. I phoned the University of Minnesota Extension Office and learned they would have a team of horticulture experts available to the public on Saturday morning at a location in my area. I could hardly wait!
Saturday morning, I eagerly rushed outside to pull up some representative samples of the nasty vines and tucked them into a Cub Foods plastic bag, then drove over to the Extension Office with my prize. There were three experts seated at long tables to field questions from gardeners, weekend lawn warriors and frustrated weed haters like myself. I stood in line clutching my bag until it was my turn. I stepped forward, dramatically presenting my array of droopy sprigs and told the horticulturist my suspicions about a kudzu invasion. To her credit, she took this news with a straight face.
After looking over the samples and consulting several books, she informed me that I had Wild Cucumber (Sicyos Angulatus). The name originates from its resemblance to domesticated cucumber plants to which it is distantly related. Although it’s not very common, it is a native plant found in southeastern and southwestern Minnesota and along the Wisconsin border.
I was disappointed to learn it was a mundane weed, and not as prolific as I had feared. It is found only in woods, along streams and roads and in damp, shady places where it can grow up to 25 feet. The U of M expert told me that the most effective way of eradicating it was simply pulling it up, mowing or hoeing.
Armed with this knowledge, I went back home to fight the good fight. I made frequent forays into the woodsy lot over the summer pulling, more of the weeds and concentrating on the producing seed pods. If the plants are uprooted before the seeds are produced, the annuals can’t seed back the following year. By the end of the summer, I was smug in the belief that I had won the war against the enemy.
The following summer I was visiting my daughter, a suburban soccer mom, whose hobby is landscape-gardening a large back yard. She took me out to see her newest plantings. As she led me toward a “cute little plant” she found near some woods, I was first shocked, then amused to find that my daughter was raising a young Wild Cucumber.
Janice Wagar is a St. Paul writer. Read her blog at http://sparrowtree-janice.blogspot.com/