Sunday, June 08, 2014


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/9/2014)


          Some whine about our short growing season in the high country, sometimes disparaging our gorgeous setting by comparing it unfavorably to hot, muggy, and disagreeable places such as Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.  Sadly, these malcontents don’t mention our long growing season for weeds.  If they’re eager for the harvest, look around.  The land is rich with burgeoning, comely maladies waiting to be plucked.


          Unwelcome plants, weeds are fast growing, ingenious, and supernaturally resourceful.  They’re best harvested when immature before they go to seed, becoming a scourge, casting their malice upon the land.


The most notorious weed and one of the earliest is cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), a truly despicable and aptly named form of vegetation.  With its lateral roots it sucks up moisture from the soil, cheating other vegetation of moisture.  Capable of displacing every thing else, especially native vegetation, it’s easily combustible, making it a fire danger.  A seedy profligate, it grows almost anywhere, especially soils that have been disturbed by an errant contractor.  Pull it as soon as it’s seen.  A native of Asia Minor, it has no known adversaries, save indignant gardeners.  Easily pulled, it should be thrown in a trash bag and sent to Environmental Services via the garbage truck. 

The next on the unwelcome list is the scotch thistle.  When the Romans conquered England in 41 A.D., they brought with them along with bathing the scotch thistle (Onopordium acanthium) which has its origins in the Mediterranean basin.  It eventually hopped over Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman barrier defending Roman England from the Scots to the north.


The scotch thistle flourished in Scotland where it proved itself a defense against Viking invaders.  In a nighttime sneak attack upon Scotland, the Norse stumbled into a thicket of scotch thistles.  Their cries of pain awakened the inhabitants who drove them back into the sea.


Imported into the United States as an ornamental shrub because of its beautiful flowers, it became an invasive, noxious weed.  The Latin phrase Nemo Me Impune Lacessit  (No One Injuries Me Unpunished) is on the national emblem of Scotland along with the scotch thistle.  While wearing leather gloves and chest plate, pull them, put them in a plastic garden bag, and dispatch them to the county dump.

Oddly, it’s a cousin to the artichoke (Cynara scolymus), both being members of the tribe Cynareae which takes its name from the Greek word for dog because their bracts look like the teeth of a snarling dog.   It’s a delightful vegetable with anti-oxidant and anti-cholesterol benefits.  Artichokes can be grown in Flagstaff just as can scotch thistles; however, they aren’t nearly as tasty as those grown in Castroville, California.


Another member of the tribe Cynareae is the Centaurae diffusa, commonly called the diffuse knapweed which in the fall and winter turns into the tumbleweed.  It, too, has snarling dog’s teeth.  The word cynic comes from the Latin word for dog, cynicus.  Cynics are toxic, baring their ideological teeth, claiming that everything is rotten save themselves.


The diffuse knapweed, a true cynic, poisons the soil around it so that nothing else can grow save itself.  It’s called allelopathy after the Greek allos and pathos via French which together mean “others’ suffering.”  The plant releases chemicals which are toxic to neighboring plants.  Just as cynics poison an intellectual environment, so do diffuse knapweeds poison a horticultural environment, eliminating their competition by toxicity.  A close misanthropy is the German schadenfreude which means joy at another’s harm. 


One plant can produce 18,000 seeds, spreading them

on the wind as its tumbles over the land.  A genuinely ugly plant, it is scraggly, prickly, and unappealing, with no known benefits.  If it had been available to Moses, it surely would’ve been a better plague than frogs (EX. 8:1-7.)


When destroying it, it should be pulled out, root and branch, before it goes to seed, put into plastic garbage bags, and dispatched to an horticultural netherworld of demons, dragons, and other malignancies.


The scotch thistle, diffuse knapweed and cheat grass have arrived.  Show them no mercy.  As with Samson of old, “smite them hip and thigh (Judges 15:18).”  Sans merci.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2014

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at



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