Fall should be a time of daily effort getting ready for a long winter challenge. Head down, slogging away on harvest, storage and battening everything from sunflower seeds to cider, firewood to fryers, hickory nuts to honey.

Unfortunately, part of the harvest cycle includes the advent of hunting season. I find it difficult to concentrate on wood splitting, raspberry picking or building storm windows while under psychic attack from the canines. I used to think the dogs picked up my thoughts. I could be splitting wood, thinking it would be nice to knock off to go hunting for a bit, and then, when I went in the door, the dogs would be leaping and bounding, vying with each other to get to be the one that goes.

I am no longer so sure of the direction. My wife can give me psychic orders on everything from going to the post office to taking her out to supper. I suspect my propensity to abandon the home work and hie off into the hinterlands may be a result of the dogs hijacking my vulnerable synapses.

This is a significant issue, at least as relates to the time allocation. Once again, my high-class bird dog has come into heat, which will keep her confined to the house for two-thirds of the season. This means the bulk of the bird work will fall to the pup. For my entire life, I have had wash and wear dogs. Even the setters have been field type and not real hairy. After a day (or night) in the field it took just a quick wipe-down with a thick towel, clean out the eyes, ears, and toes, dab some antibiotic on any scrapes, and they are back in mint condition. Clyde is a different issue. A simple afternoon run can easily leave me with a couple of hours combing, picking out burrs, scrubbing mud, blood and goop out of his thick retriever coat.

A side effect has been a greater appreciation for the variety and fabulous adaptations of these hitchhiking wads of germplasm. The hideous labor required to remove them speaks volumes about how good they are at their job. Of particular interest this fall is a lovely little plant known as “innocent weed.” I was reminded of this when I got a really painful puncture removing burrs from Clyde’s ear fuzz. I recall “discussions” between my grandparents regarding the proper name for this particular plant. Gram’s middle Vermont background labelled it “Gentle Annie” while Gramp was quite emphatic it was called innocent weed. Personally, I never understood either since it seemed neither innocent nor gentle to me.

The more widely accepted name for this plant is spiny burr grass. It is native to North America but has spread to many other areas. It is a particularly hated invasive in much of Australia. The environmental niche it seems to fill in North America is that of a primary colonist in disturbed areas. An area, laid bare by forest fire, might be in danger of widespread erosion were it not for the fact that SBG is particularly adapted to open dirt areas.

Seeds, spread by animals, root easily in loose dirt, rapidly holding it together to resist both water and wind erosion. Given that each plant produces around 1,000 seeds every year, it does not take long for the area to be pretty well stitched together. Interestingly, the very thing that might be a redeeming factor for this plant is also its demise, for it cannot tolerate any degree of crowding and, as soon as a dense mat gets established, the germination of seeds drops off and the plants disappear in a year or two.

The two common names derive from the fact the plant is a pretty tame-looking grassy clump throughout most of its life-cycle. Seeds are tough and may remain viable for many years under the soil waiting for proper conditions. The plant that emerges from them is a soft, harmless-looking grass clump. It remains so until about mid-summer when it flowers and begins producing seeds.

The seeds, up to 1,000 per plant, are each covered in a tough husk and equipped with several strong, sharp, finely barbed spines. The primary method of seed dispersal is through entangling in animal hair and being carried off until the animal sheds out the current year’s coat or grooms out the nasty burr. These spiny burrs, although only about a quarter inch long, are exceedingly tough. They have been known to get into the grooves in footwear and ultimately give you a stab right through your Adidas. Animals fare somewhat worse. If Clyde were not so pampered, he would have to try and groom out the burrs on his own.

In these cases, the animal’s lips, tongue and foot pads are often stabbed and lacerated by the tough spines. In Australia, there are annually great losses in the sheep industry. In addition to being an impossible-to-remove contaminant in wool, the burrs actually seem to work continually deeper in the sheep’s wool until they begin to abrade and puncture the animal’s skin. In many cases this turns into an infection or fly infestation, sometimes leading to the animal’s death. Grazing animals are also wounded on the lips and tongue when they run afoul of Gentle Annie that, just the week before, was a somewhat palatable grass.

Oops — I am feeling a siren call to take the dog out for another spin. I will just cover my Gentle Annie wounds with Band-Aids and sally forth because I cannot fail to obey.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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