Tahlequah Daily Press

August 26, 2013

Johnsongrass may be the evil of all roots

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — Can any of you tell explain what “sorghum halepense” is, without resorting to a Google search? Most of you will, however, recognize the common moniker, and you’ll agree it’s a scourge. It encroaches on your Bermudagrass and fescue, and can give an NBA player a run for his money in the height department. And it’s harder to get rid of than “locals” loitering outside a liquor store.

Johnsongrass: You hate it, right? I despise it enough that I tweeted against it last week on Twitter, complete with a photo of the stuff that has lately taken over our field.

I’m curious about the Alabama plantation owner who gave this weed its name. According to Wikipedia (not an especially reliable source), Col. William Johnson planted it around 1840 in his “river-bottom farm land,” presumably to curtail erosion. No one’s quite sure why Johnson got the blame, since the weed had already been wreaking havoc on legitimate crops in other states for a decade.

It’s supposedly edible, but openly admitting to its consumption would likely submit you to as much ridicule as feasting on possum. It chokes out other cash crops, and if it becomes stressed, it can reportedly build up enough hydrogen cyanide to kill cattle and horses. It seems to have developed a self-defense mechanism as efficient as the double-jawed “alien” in the movies of same name.

Years ago, when I had time to tend my lawn, I took personal affront at the presence of Johnsongrass on our acreage. I determined I would dig up every individual blade of Johnsongrass and consign it to oblivion. I remember wallowing on my knees, gouging at the ground to get at the pink-tinged white roots. I tossed the clumps of Johnsongrass into random piles, assuming they’d die from lack of water and dry out in the sun. That only worked partially. While some of the evil weed did, in fact, wither in the heat, a few root tendrils managed to gain another toehold among the Bermuda, and I had to dig them out again.

Finally I got smart and dragged up a wheelbarrow, where I heaped the harvest and considered my options. Did I take it and dump it somewhere, like so many people around here do with their unwanted pets? Or did I set fire to it and hope for the best? Or perhaps some poison would do the trick. I finally employed a combination of the latter, just to make sure.

My battle was far from over. In those days, I was responsible for mowing the lawn, while my husband was supposed to brushhog the field with his tractor. This he did do, but not as often as I did my mowing. So the Johnsongrass in the field sometimes got tall enough to develop a head of seeds, which wafted through the air on the first sturdy breeze, and landed on my almost-pristine lawn.

Eventually my husband insisted he could do a better job mowing the lawn than I could, and he took over that chore – after a fashion. While I tended to mow every week or two, his back-and-forth jaunts with the mower are fewer and farther between. And in the adjacent field, I can almost hear the Johnsongrass crowing in triumph at its unchecked ability to be fruitful and multiply.

At this writing, the crop in the field is taller than my 5-foot-9 husband, and is thick enough to hide a band of Cookson Hills bandits bent on ill deeds. The seed has spread far and wide – across the highway, into what’s left of my once-lush lawn and the untended flowerbeds. About the only vegetation more prominent are the poison ivy and the briars, which are even harder to hold at bay than the Johnsongrass.

I’ll take any advice I can get – or any help I can get. And if anyone knows where this Col. Johnson is buried, I’d like to know. If I ever get around to Alabama, I have a certain bouquet I’d like to lay on his grave.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.