SciSun: It’s all Greek   Leave a comment

The mountains, plains, meadows and sagebrush habitats of western North America are a long way from ancient Greece, yet some of the monsters that terrorized the stories of that society are today alive and well, their ever-advancing reach devastating all they encounter, leaving nothing in their path but scarred land and millions of offspring waiting for their chance to spread uncontrollably and overtake all. Yet these creatures aren’t a cyclops nor a titan nor any other creature from Greek myth; but invasive weeds introduced, allowed, and often encouraged to grow not by the command of mythological gods, but through the misunderstanding and disregard of man himself.

Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is a non-native grass named after the Greek monster with the face of a beautiful woman, but hair consisting of dozens of snakes. Introduced into America in the 1880’s, probably hidden in livestock hay or as bristly-seeds caught in the animals fur (the medusa plant, not the mythological creature. At least we hope not.), by the 1950’s the grass had spread, west to east and north to south, throughout much of the United States and Canada and continues to move into areas previously thought inhabitable for this species. As we know non-native species are experts at displacing existing plants and animals, and taking all the resources for themselves. While some – like the tamarask (a tree-like shrub) are, surprisingly, actually accepted by native birds (who are happy to have just about any tree to live in), most non-natives are unwelcome by anyone and also prove very, very difficult to be rid of. Aside from aggressively spreading, Medusa grass also is particularly high in silica, the mineral most often associated with sand (many plants take in minerals to help strengthen their stems, leaves and trunks; although they have to get their supplements from the soil rather than gummy chews); and because of this virtually no wildlife or livestock can eat and digest the plant, and when dormant or dead creates a dense, tough mat that prevents most other plants from sprouting. Also, during part of the year the plant produces up to three-inch long barbs that can injure the mouths, noses and eyes of any animal hungry, or adventurous enough, to attempt a taste. Even goats, who will try to eat most any plant, would rather eat something other than Medusa – which they often can, because Medusa has formed a type of partnership with our old adversary Cheatgrass, another non-native that shares Medusa habitat. Between the two – which, over seasons and years, can actually trade and shift dominance between themselves – there’s not much chance for the native sagebrush, grass, and low-shrub communities that Medusa and Cheatgrass target.

No matter how much she tried, Cowslip couldn't bring herself to eat this prickly weed.  Still, she held on to the odd fascination that maybe just one little nibble couldn't hurt.

No matter how much she tried, Cowslip couldn’t bring herself to eat this prickly weed. Still, she held on to the odd fascination that maybe just one little nibble couldn’t hurt.

And just as Greek myth spoke of the hound Cerberus, a three-headed dog whose duty it was to guard the entrance to the Underworld, showing great attention and favor for all those entering while waiting to attack anyone trying to leave, today we find Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) competing with native plants, spreading into pastures and fields, and often one of the first plants to colonize and become established on barren or recently disturbed areas. A relatively innocent-looking plant related to mint, once used as a traditional medicine for breathing disorders and still sometimes as an ingredient for throat lozenges, the plant is recognized by its round, fringed leaves, the tops covered with downy hairs while the bottoms are wooly white. While producing a surprisingly pleasant smell when touched (the species was originally brought to America as a garden plant) – it has a sharp, bitter taste and woody stems that make it almost as inedible as Medusa and Cheatgrass (for all but goats, who just about dare you to find something they don’t like), but fortunately is easier to identify and pull than other invasives so makes a good project for weekend weed-clearing projects. Or goat buffets.

The stories of ancient civilizations often reflected their hopes, goals, and fears, accepting myths of the unseen to explain the unexplained. At that time there was much more unknown about the world than there was known, and mysteries and horrors were believed to lie within each cave, around every hill, and within the dark recesses of the forests and oceans. Over 3000 years, today our knowledge has grown beyond the need to rely on tales of giants and monsters, and the decisions we make aren’t determined by the arbitrary desires of a group of heroes and villains but through the ability to determine our own future, and the future of the earth and all its inhabitants. Certainly in 3000 years we can live a more informed, responsible, and fulfilled life than the ancient Greeks, who were often guided more by fear and ignorance, than by knowledge. And we would never make that mistake, would we?


Michonne Says: Those hairyhound plants are no good at all, not even to walk on. They look pretty but sometimes they can sting your feets if you’re not careful. And don’t even try to eat one, not even the flowers. I don’t know what the Me-doos-a plants are but they sound even worse. I don’t even know why they’re here in the first place.

Posted November 16, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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