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Bob Henke commentary: A birthday, a car and velvetleaf

Bob Henke commentary: A birthday, a car and velvetleaf

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This year is one of those milestone birthdays for Dr. Wifey — one she finds particularly upsetting to contemplate. I have, therefore, been casting about for inspiration on what to get her to take the edge off and coax out a smile. Given my typical lack of creativity, nothing was springing to mind and the clock was ticking. I was contemplating this as I sat down at Carmody Ford, waiting for them to do an inspection on her red car, which had also achieved a milestone in mileage.

On a whim, I went into the showroom, sat down and talked to Craig, who sells me all my cars. Dr. Wifey is sort of picky about things like heated seats, adjustments that allow her to see over the steering wheel, moon roofs and the like. I gave him my list of gotta haves and asked that he see what he could find around. I realized something with exactly those features would probably take some searching. He said, yeah, it would probably be a tough search but why didn’t I just turn around in my chair.

Turns out the showroom model, sitting about 6 feet from me, was exactly perfect. We made the deal and Dr. Wifey got two things. First was a new car for her birthday, something I always wanted to do but the timing never worked out. Secondly, she got her present almost a week early.

This is something she has worked on for as long as I have known her — trying to get her presents before the actual event. I always felt this a ploy to make me feel guilty when the actual date came so I would get something additional. That will probably happen again this time too, but I am still boggled by the virtual immediacy from the time I got the idea to it coming to fruition.

Maybe there is a recurring theme here. Just yesterday, I stopped up to Brian McWhorter’s to drop off a final quart of blueberries I owed him. We were talking about farming stuff in general and how hard it has been to keep up with weeds this year in particular. Nothing grew much during the hot dry period. The blueberries were a great example.

The bees worked hard and there were lots of berries this year, however, they were all small. I have taken great pride in the quarter-sized restaurant berries we grow and this year, there was nothing to be proud of at all. It took about an hour a quart to fill the baskets with those little berries — yielding pay of about a third the starting rate of a fast food job. More interesting was the fact the crop did not progress much until the first rainstorm and then nearly everything was ripe within 24 hours.

The weeds had a similar pattern. There was nothing in the thick mulch of the tomato patch, until the first rain, and in a day or so, the tomatoes were being shaded out by 3-foot weeds. Of particular issue to Brian was a weed called velvetleaf, which seems to be able to go from zero to 4 feet overnight.

Left alone, velvetleaf will put up stalks as much as 8 feet high. The large, soft leaves that generate its name, are about 8 inches across and similar in length measurement in mature plants. Velvetleaf not only feeds very heavily on nitrates, draining nutrients away from competing plants, it also causes significant damage by shading.

One thing most baffling about velvetleaf is its sudden appearance. A piece of land that has been nothing but grass pasture for an entire generation of farmers is plowed and before the planted crop can germinate, velvetleaf has magically popped up all over the field.

It is not that magical, actually, it is just simply the toughness of the velvetleaf seeds. They can live in the ground as much as 60 years, just waiting for the proper conditions to germinate. The interesting thing is the old seed that has been plowed under, deep in the ground for many decades, when brought back near the surface by a subsequent plowing, seems to be every bit as robust and lively as seed from the previous summer.

Like so many other noxious things, velvetleaf was released on this continent on purpose. Originally a native of India, someone thought the tall, rapid-growing plants might be a good source of bast — plant fibers used in the production of cord and fabric. Turned out it was not good for much, except killing out other commercial crops for, in addition to shading and nutrient sequestering, velvetleaf’s big taproots put out a substance that causes stunting in competing plants. Even though it is listed as a noxious weed and is on quarantine lists in many countries, Germany just did some trials to see if they could produce economical natural fiber from velvetleaf. Turned out they could not — what a shock.

Astonishingly, velvetleaf seed still finds its way into the commercial market in this country, primarily in “sunflower” mixtures. Its one-inch yellow flower is pretty, albeit not really sunflower-like. They are relished by all sorts of bees, but only stay open for a couple of days before wilting and beginning seed production. Seeds are borne in a strange cup-like rosette structure and, as expected by its persistence, are very hard. A plant in full sun can produce new flowers every two or three days so seed production is very rapid. A healthy plant can produce up to 1,700 seeds and in some areas, given the long-term vigor of the seeds, the seed count per acre can be staggering.

This explains the seemingly instantaneous appearance of velvetleaf. Nothing, however, can explain the seemingly instantaneous appearance of a new car for Dr. Wifey’s birthday. Happy birthday Sweetie!

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


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