He removes thorns and plants hope
For the past few years, I have participated in “Thorny Thursdays” targeting a popular trail near Jackson, Wyoming. The weekly weed party was organized in 2019 by Morgan Graham, a wildlife habitat specialist at the Teton County Conservation District, and attracts more volunteers each year — 16 people in 2023.
To slow the steady march of musk thistle, a fast-spreading weed from Eurasia, we spend every Thursday morning crouching down to fend off these interlopers. We know that what we are doing is just a drop in the bucket, but here, along this path, we see results.
Morgan is joined by a mixed crew: native plant enthusiasts, elk hunters, nonprofit and Forest Service employees, as well as “young adults” in their 30s and retirees like me.
My friend Mary, who is almost 80, won the award as the oldest and most enthusiastic of the crew. While we were waiting for a friend on a trail this summer, she saw a muskthorn tree on a steep slope, went to her car to get some gloves, and motioned for me to follow her. “Let’s get this,” she said. Many of them ended up being uprooted.
Musk thistle (nodding thorns) It is an invasive weed, and like many invasive plants, it is adaptable and hardy, producing prolific seeds. It competes for light and nutrients with native plants. Ultimately, it could replace them.
To be fair, it does have positive qualities. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are attracted to its purple flowers, and it blooms later than many native wildflowers, extending the insect season. Songbirds eat its seeds.
But wildlife and livestock will not eat musk thistle because of its thorns. Where they grow, grazing animals have to feed more on other plants, reducing their vigor, allowing musk thistle to conquer a larger area than ever before.
Dealing with a muskrat situation takes determination. All flowers and buds are removed and placed in bags or boxes. The plant, a long-lived biennial, should be cut below the base or pulled to prevent further flowering.
All of us volunteers wear protective gear including heavy gloves, long sleeves and sturdy boots. The work is hard, but the hours fly by with conversation, laughter and impromptu contests to see who can pull the biggest forks without tools.
We talk about plant ecology in general, but one question often comes up: “What makes it a weed?” Simply put, a plant is a weed if it does not belong to the place where it grows. But as humans, we are inconsistent.
For a farmer who depends on crops for a living, a weed is any plant, native or otherwise, that competes with the crop. For hand-spinners, the invasive and noxious tansy is welcome because of its rich golden dye. For a rancher whose cattle or sheep feed on public lands, tall larkspur, many members of the pea family, and all native plants should be sprayed, as they are toxic.
We also extract other invasive species such as Canada thistle, hound’s tongue, salsify, toadstool, and weeds. Despite our best efforts, these plants thrive. As we work, it’s fun for cyclists to shout “Thank you!”, although some of them shake their heads. “You’re pissing in the wind,” someone shouted.
But before-and-after photos show that our hours make a difference. There is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the beds of two pickup trucks filled with bags of musk thistle flowers.
Part of me admits I’m not making much of a difference, but a bigger part is glad I did a little no matter how long the effects last. My Thistle Thursday friends agree.
That’s why we keep coming back. It’s a way of saying, “I’ll enjoy my life while it lasts.” Weeding and filling buckets with flowers is a lot like tending a garden at home. We are just tending to a bigger garden, the Garden of Eden that we all inherited.
Most of all, we express what may be the most dangerous human emotion these days: hope.
Susan Marsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writerssontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to stimulating dialogue about the West. She is a naturalist and writer for Mountain Journal, covering Yellowstone’s wildlife, wildlands and culture. A longer version of this opinion appeared at Mountainjournal.org