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  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Hikers cross a clearing choked with star thistle at Rattlesnake Bar in the Folsom State Recreation Area. The noxious weed crowds out native plants.

  • Chris Crewell / Bee file, 2000

    Goats eat star thistle – but at two goats per acre it would take nearly 30million goats to control the weed in California.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    This has been a blockbuster summer for Star what with the heavy late-spring rain and milder summer enabling the plant to spread.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    This has been a blockbuster summer for Star what with the heavy late-spring rain and milder summer enabling the plant to spread.

More Information

  • What it is: A long-lived winter annual native to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.

    Its impact: Displaces desirable vegetation, hurts livestock grazing, contaminates grain harvest, overtakes parks, trails and hillsides.

    Where it's at: Covers 15 million acres in California, in addition to spreading to 23 other states.

    Size: Can grow to 4 feet high, and its roots can reach 6 feet deep.

    Effects: Consumption by horses can lead to brain lesions that cause death. Spines can pierce the skin of hikers and bikers, but it is not poisonous.

    Ways to combat: Burning, mowing, tilling, hand-pulling, introducing weevils and flies from native regions, herbicides.

Invasive yellow star thistle aims to take over the world

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1I
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 - 12:08 pm

Editor's note: The story on the yellow star thistle was based on interviews with Joseph M. DiTomaso of the Weed Science Program at UC Davis and Wendy West, coordinator of the yellow star thistle Leading Edge Project for the UC Cooperative Extension. Additional information was provided by the California Invasive Plant Council and the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program.

As with any mega-star in a state that cultivates celebrity, yellow star thistle flirts with overexposure. It's the Jennifer Aniston of invasive noxious weeds, its impact somewhat diluted by its very ubiquity.

We see it everywhere – on freeway offramps, in vacant city lots, spreading like some hideous gray-green rash across vast swaths of ranchland. We feel its barbed presence – on park trails, in camping and wilderness areas, even one's own garden. We gripe about its omnipresence, its insidious invasion of our lives and sock linings, even as we shrug and say, "No way to stop it."

Like Aniston, it's long been a part of our lives and we've just learned to deal with it.

But nobody really takes the time to get to know star thistle. To truly look beyond its bright bling and facile outward appearance – those famous spiky heads and grilles of yellow buds, those leggy green stalks – and delve into the root of its being.

This has been a blockbuster summer for Star – yes, it's ascended to first-name-only status – what with the heavy late-spring rain and milder summer enabling the plant to spread. Some outdoors paparazzi say they can't point their cameras at a given landscape without Star popping into the viewfinder, à la Brangelina at a movie opening.

Indeed, Star's long list of credits bespeaks its clout: 15 million acres covered in 57 of California's 58 counties. The Bee recently caught up with Star as it was making an extended personal appearance at one of its favorite local haunts, the Rattlesnake Bar trailhead of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

Though a prickly interview, it agreed to tell its story, to dish on how it has evaded centurylong eradication efforts, to scoff at haters in the plant biology community who want to soil its name, and to speculate on plans to branch out and extend its reach.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

What, you mean all of that sepia-toned Wallace Stegner Gold Rush-era stuff? How I fought my way up from a seedling? That's all in the press packet. I don't have time for this. I've got an empty lot in Rancho Cordova to invade.

Indulge us, please. We hear it's a good yarn.

Oh, you flatter me. Well, it's your classic immigrant story, really. I may look like a native, but I have roots going back to Balkan Asia and the Middle East. I hitched a ride with all the Chilean alfalfa seed sent to the Central Valley farmers during early Gold Rush times.

When was your first big break?

I cultivated my talents in Marysville back in 1951, where I grew alongside the alfalfa planted near the levees. Gotta say, I loved soaking up all that irrigation water meant for the crops. Soon I played a supporting role in wheat and barley fields around Sacramento, sort of community theater for aspiring noxious weeds. From there, there was no stopping me.

Who were some of your early mentors?

I'm actually self-taught. This may sound immodest, but when you've got a seed bank as vast as mine – 29,000 seeds per square meter, with a 95 percent germination rate – and no natural enemies, you'd have to say I was a prodigy.

But you did have help, right?

You must mean my entourage, my posse. Back in the early days – you know, the late 1800s, early 1900s; notice I'm not so vain as to lie about my age? – I took my act on the road, did the Kerouac finding-myself thing, hitching rides on tractors and farm equipment to sprout in foothill grasslands. Livestock are my homies, too. Early on, my seeds stuck to hooves and hopped off wherever the cows roamed. Cows are loyal. They mostly stay away from grazing on me. Which is more than I can say about goats. Don't get me started on the goats.

When did you first feel you hit it big?

Numbers-wise, I made it to the million-acre mark in 1958. That was gratifying, validating. But I was just getting started. I hadn't actually stretched myself as an invasive species. You couldn't keep me down on the farm. I needed to get down to SoCal. You're nothing if you can't conquer L.A., baby. Soon, I was curling up next to the Hollywood sign.

How did you get down to Southern California?

The freeway, how else? Sheesh, are you dense? Seriously, the '60s were good to me, man. My seed glommed onto every road-building program in Cali. I made my presence felt in every new suburban subdivision from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and found some choice ranchland to invade as well. Heck, back in the '60s, it was almost too easy. I may have even been spread throughout the state by nomadic hippies and Deadheads. They didn't wash too often, as you might recall.

When did you decide to go nationwide?

It was just a natural progression. You have to stretch and grow as a weed hoping for a long career arc. Once I hit the 10 million-acre level in California, it clearly was time to look outward. My peripatetic, stiff pappus bristles can cling to the undercarriage of vehicles, affix burrlike to people's socks, cling to your dog's hair. Today, I'm in 23 states, mostly in the West, but I'm also gaining a foothold in New York. Strictly off-Broadway right now, but give me time.

You're nothing if not persistent. And you don't work cheaply, do you?

Yeah, that's why I've often been cast as the villain. On public lands alone, you, the state taxpayer, shell out $12.5 million a year to manage only about a half million acres of my weeds. That's 25 bucks an acre, and there's no guarantee that the prescribed spraying, burning, mowing, tilling and biologically bombing won't prevent me from coming back for an encore.

I also command obscene amounts of water. It's a rider in my contract. In the Sacramento River watershed alone, I cause an economic loss of $75 million pertaining to water conservation. I can't help it if I have a taste for the drink. And I've taken up so much foraging space on ranchlands that the value of pasture lands has decreased by 7 percent.

So, yeah, I'm kind of a big deal.

You do seem to think a lot of yourself. Are you ever worried about being called shallow?

No, I've got great depth. Literally. My roots extend as far as 6 feet underground. That's how I'm able suck all the groundwater away from native species, like annual grasses and clover whose roots aren't as long. Size matters, pal.

But don't you feel the slightest pangs of remorse for threatening the native ecosystem? You reduce soil moisture by 8 inches of stored rainfall for each 3 feet of soil. That's as much as an old oak tree consumes. Isn't that selfish?

Are you asking if I feel guilty because, ahhh, the poor lil' purple needlegrass can't survive when I'm exerting my influence? It's nature, hombre. It's a competitive environment. Grow or die.

But, still, you've been known to kill horses. Lacking other grazing land, they eat your stalks and get so addicted to it that they develop brain lesions and neurological disorders that kill them.

Yeah, so what's your question? I'm always the bad guy, right? I play the heavy. But horses are the only thing my stalks kill. Cows, burros and goats can feed on me, no problem. Goats'll even eat my needles. That's hard-core.

Everybody always talks about my treatment of horses and how I annoy hikers with my prickly personality. But what about me? If you prick me, do I not bleed? What's nettlesome to me is how man has tried everything short of nuclear annihilation to get rid of me. It can give a guy a complex. I mean, am I paranoid, or are you really out to get me?

It's true. Plant sciences and food and agriculture experts have tried everything. Burning, for one.

Right. I've undergone a trial by fire but mostly come out unscathed. Often, I can bounce back from a single fire season and, because of my huge seed bank, I can germinate more heartily and return stronger the next season.

At Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County, a three-year burning program eradicated 91 percent of your vegetative cover. How traumatic was that?

Merely a flesh wound. Listen, burning won't work in the long run because you have to time the burn to late June or July when I'm in my flowering stages, which can cause out-of-control fires. Plus, it's expensive. Might as well unleash those bleepin' goats.

You keep mentioning goats. What's the deal?

I guess you could call us "frenemies." A lot of times, land-use types will unleash a herd – there's an outfit in Orinda called "Goats R Us" – to graze on me. They usually come in May, when I'm bolting and most susceptible. Goats, man, they're freaks. They've got a large liver mass and highly tolerant mouths that can process and digest even the sharpest of my spines. Good thing it takes something like 1,900 head of them to tackle every 1,000 acres. So widespread use is not feasible. I get my revenge, too. My seeds get under their hooves so that when they go someplace else, I jump off and stake a new claim.

But goats, man, they really bug me.

Speaking of which, haven't scientists at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service imported "biological controls" such as the bud weevil, the hairy weevil and gall fly from as far away as Greece and Turkey to try to eradicate you?

Those parasites! See, everyone wants a piece of me. You try dealing with some weevil depositing its larvae down your flower buds. That's the hidden price of being a star thistle. But the bugs are still more palatable than being marinated by all those chemicals.

Are you referring to the herbicides Milestone and Transline, which plant scientists say can control your spread without killing native grasses.

Bad trip, dude, bad trip. That stuff's laced with aminopyralid, and it's a killer. Fortunately, they have to time the spraying so that it's before my seeds germinate, so I'm too ubiquitous for them to wipe out. Plus, have you seen the street value of the stuff? Forty bucks per acre. I'm not a cheap habit.

Indeed not. So what's next for you? Any more fields to conquer?

There are always more fields. To paraphrase Tom Joad, wherever there's gravel ready to be smoothed on the side of the road, I'll be there. Wherever there's mulch to spread on freeway medians, I'll be there. Wherever there are hikers and mountain bikers to brush against, equestrians to latch onto, tractors to hitch a ride with, I'll be there.

Anything else?

I've got my eye on Imperial County. It's the only county in the state yet to feel my sting.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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