Klamath Weed

12 07 2011

A few days ago we had one of our summertime traditions: the watermelon flower shop, where the kids run around bringing flowers to me and are paid pieces of watermelon in return, a holdover from the days when they used to set up every kind of shop at a moments notice; this was my way of joining in. James really looks forward to it – it was the thing he mentioned that he really wanted to make sure he did this summer. In past years, it’s been about dandelions – quantity and quality. This year, as I’m trying to learn about the life on my property, I requested novelty, and, sure enough, there were lots of flowers that I didn’t know the names of.

Today, I tried to identify one, a lovely yellow flower with five petals and lots of stamens. Although it is a weedy looking plant, the flowers are really pretty – bright five-pointed stars that seem to have a bit of an explosion of stamens in the center – or are they alluring eyelashes? Metaphors are misleading, perhaps, but the flower does somehow remind me of batting eyelashes, and the cheerful yellow seems designed to banish any blues in a wash of simple happiness. So I decided to take a stab at identifying it.

It’s always a bit intimidating to start poking through the books and trying to make an identification, and it can be hard to be sure I’ve found what I was looking for! This time, I am completely confident.

The process of studying and identifying a flower is a lesson in observation. It seems an old magic that still satisfies me to find Klamath Weed in the book, to be told that there are small black dots near the tips of the petals and then to look at the petals and…I didn’t notice them before, but there they are!

..or the dark dots on the leaves that are translucent when the leaves are held to the light?

And then, there’s the beetle, which the guidebook also mentioned, but didn’t name – I only noticed it well after I started studying my various guide books — and its mention in the flower field guide led to a very satisfactory identification in my fairly inscrutable beetle book! (there are so many different kinds of beetles that it sometimes seems kind of ridiculous!) Anyway, the plant is called Klamath Weed, so naturally the beetle clinging to it is the Klamathweed beetle! (or Chrysolina quadrigemina, one of the 212 members of the skeletonizing leaf beetles)

With all of those dots and the beetle, as well as the color and petals and “many stamens in 3-5 bunches”, I was sure I’d the right plant. The guide book also mentioned an intriguing story of the invasion of the Klamath area by this plant, which I later found online:

Klamath weed, also known as St. John’s wort or goatweed, is a native of Europe and Asia that was accidently brought into northern California around 1900. The plant, which is poisonous to livestock, spread rapidly throughout the pasturelands of California and adjacent states. By 1945, it had rendered over 4 million acres of rangeland unfit for grazing livestock. In the late 1940’s, several leaf beetles collected in the weed’s native Europe were imported to California and released on infested rangelands. The most successful of these species, Chrysolina quadrigemina, soon became established and by 1956, it had largely eliminated klamath weed as a threat to livestock in the western United States. Today, small pockets of the weed still exist in shady sites where the beetles do not survive well. These isolated weed populations are sufficient to maintain the beetle population at a level that effectively suppresses further outbreaks of the weed. (from http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/ent425/text19/weedeaters.html )

I really struggle to get good photos of these tiny creatures – and not just because they are eye-strainingly small. Like any wild creatures, they tend to move around and go where they want to. But the rewards of close examination are such that, even if I didn’t capture the beetle completly on film, its beauty and the beauty of the noxious weed it eats are cemented in my brain; I learned so much from the short hour I spent with this pair. Look at the knobby antennae of this beetle – that’s something I’d only seen in guide books, not really looked at in life. And do you see those tiny dots on the carapace? When you look at this beetle with only your eye, it appears to be almost a perfect thing, but the colors and dots, on closer inspection, seem like aging metal or a tropical creature.

So often I find that more I dig into the natural history of any creature or plant, the more trails I uncover.

One such trail is visual – evidently this beetle has striking wings hidden under that shell. (and what are those holes for?)

Another is more complex. As you may have noticed above, Klamath weed is perhaps better-known as St. John’s Wort, the once-popular herbal remedy for depression. This forks off to many trails; for example, a vocabulary trail, which I quickly settled – wort is a Middle English word for plant, one often used for medicinal plants, as in liverwort, which was thought to benefit the liver. But there is also medicine, evolutionary biology and so on…

As I understand it, one of the side effects of eating the leaves of this plant is a sensitivity to light and this sensitivity is what makes it impossible to use as forage for livestock. A continuing theme this summer has been the ongoing dynamic – one might call it a war – between creatures, even between humble ones like weeds and grazers. I’d like to understand more about this – how does it work? How are – or would be – my cells made more sensitive to light? And how could this subtle effect have developed in the plant? These questions, like my quick one about wort, probably all have available answers, but I can’t just ramble on, researching and regurgitating.

Instead, I’ll exit with one more picture of the beetle, the way it was usually sitting, rear-end facing the world, with bits of frass laying around. I have to say that I feel quite satisfied with this whole process – I managed to identify the plant, notice things about it that I would never have otherwise – including the beetle eating it – and I feel the richer for the whole process.

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