A few mullein plants, which we called tobacco weeds on account of their soft leaves and ramrod straight yellow flowers, grew along the fence line along the cow path.
A story that I wholeheartedly thought to be true was the plants had escaped from tobacco fields years before. Unlike in Wisconsin, where tobacco production was economically important, tobacco farms were about as rare as hens’ teeth in Minnesota. Truth is that mullein weeds mostly grow along railroad tracks and in disturbed soil.
We also held firm to the belief that sticky milkweed milk helped treat cuts, blisters, and burns. Mother, who was no stranger to home remedies, did not contradict the practice.
Milkweed has taken on much greater importance with people who practice alternative medicine. They believe that boiled milkweed can effectively treat asthma, arthritis, stomach ailments, gallstones, and more. Native Americans also used the plant for medicinal purposes.
Milkweed also benefits monarch butterflies and other beneficial creatures, and milkweed fluff are stuffed into expensive pillows.
An organic farmer told me that he has tremendous respect for all weeds because of their ability to adjust to different herbicides and cultivation practices. In response to a question, he said organic producers have different weed species to deal with than conventional operators.
A weed that’s been called the most dangerous one in North America is potentially a problem for both groups. Palmer Amaranth, native to the southwest U.S., first appeared in cotton fields in the southeastern U.S. and spread fast. The weed, which grows rapidly and can reach taller than 10 feet, devasted some cotton fields. Each plant can generate 400,000 seeds.
Researchers were confident in the late 1990s that the Palmer amaranth couldn’t tolerate glyphosate, but it adapted quickly and soon it had resistance to it.
The weed soon appeared in Iowa and South Dakota and appeared on Minnesota’s obnoxious weed list in 2015.
How did it arrive in northern climates so soon? Cottonseed shipped from southern exporters and conservation acres planted with contaminated grass seed. It is against the law to knowingly export contaminated seed.
Research indicates fields infested with Palmer amaranth could reduce corn yields by 91 percent and soybean yields by 79 percent. A University of Minnesota researcher who took part in a field day brought photographs of the enemy but said he couldn’t bring an actual plant out of fear that its seed might break out and contaminate.
Minnesota has two categories of noxious weeds. Sixteen species are on the prohibited list — including giant hogweed and Johnsongrass — that must be eliminated if found. An additional 16 are on the prohibited control list. Canada thistle, leafy spurge, and wild parsnips are on that list.
The world has become smaller and faster, which means problems spread much quicker. The emerald ash borer, which is a killer of ash across the country, arrived on our shores in 2002 on shipping crates transported from China. Dutch elm disease came from Asia and nearly wiped out the species.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture brought in Asian lady beetles in the 20th century to control aphids who threatened soybeans. As homeowners know too well, the beetles invade homes in fall and stink to high heaven when crushed. It has become one of the world’s fastest-growing invasive species.
Quack grass, which at present bedevils my strawberry bed, originated in Northern Europe. Initially, it was used as medicine and a livestock forage plant. During famines, humans ate its leaves and roots. Before herbicides, it also became a major headache for farmers.
Even dandelions were brought here by colonists who carried seed to plant in the new world. Millions of dollars are spent nationwide to kill them so that lawns can be made perfect.
Anything can be a weed if it grows where it’s not wanted. Volunteer corn in a soybean field is a good example of that.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.
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