Sat, Apr 11th, 2009
I was hiking recently this past summer and along the trail I spotted an old adversary - the Yellow Starthistle! My thoughts instantly went back to over 20 years ago to the war my family waged against this weed. I do not like Yellow Starthistle and for good reason. Growing up on a ranch one of my least favorite chores was to remove Yellow Starthistle weeds from our property. This was necessary because if you didn't, they would spread quickly and soon take over. The ideal way to remove them was to pull them from the ground, roots and all. If you simply cut them, they would soon grow back larger and fuller. Mom, dad, my brother and I spent many hours and days pulling star thistle from our land. It was hard work. In the spring, before the thistle flowered and displayed its thorns, it wasn't too bad. At least we didn't get pricked to death and our goats enjoyed eating what we picked. However, it still wasn't smooth sailing due to the strong grip the roots held to the ground. Many times after pulling the plant from the ground most if not all the roots would remain in the ground. This is because the Yellow Starthistle has a deep root system. This is one of the attributes that allow this weed to thrive in hot and dry conditions. In the summer heat, after they flowered, removing star thistle was a real pain. It didn't matter what kind of gloves we wore, the thistles would somehow always prick us. They put up a good fight. The goats would not eat the thistle in the summer, because by this time the plants were dry and tough. Also, I'm sure the thorns were a deterrent. In the summer months we would mostly use a hoe to remove the plant from the ground. After the plant flowered and turned brown, it was easier to remove them from the dry California earth.
The Yellow Starthistle, like so many plants in this state, is not native to California. Scientists believe that it was first introduced to California sometime after the gold rush of 1849 in Chilean-grown alfalfa seed. Historical records show that alfalfa was first introduced to Chile from Spain in the 1600s. By 1958, the weed was estimated to have invaded over 1 million acres in California. In California today, it has spread to approximately 15 million acres and can be found in 56 of the 58 counties.
With diligence the spread of the Yellow Starthistle can be slowed or stopped. Today, on my parents property there is no longer acres full of this weed. Maybe a couple plants can be found here and there if you really look for it. This is not only due to being quick to grab a hoe or pull a weed when we spotted one but also due to a secret weapon, sheep. One of the most effective means to controlling Yellow Starthistle is through grazing. In our war against this weed, the sheep grazing the property are the heavy artillery. Once my parents started raising sheep the Yellow Starthisltles started disappearing. We were able to beat this weed without the use of herbicide.
As strange as it may seem, these days when I spot Yellow Starthistle my thoughts turn nostalgic. It would be a stretch to call this plant an old friend though; it's more like an old adversary. Yet, it does certainly bring back memories of my younger years. The plant to me is a token of a time that has past. When I hike, I always take note of this plant and appreciate the fact that I can just pass it by. No more war.