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Published May 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

Fighting knapweed one ditch at a time

I know just what’s coming whenever I hear that slow crunch of tires coming to a halt on the gravel road beside me.

By: Janna Goerdt, Duluth News Tribune

I know just what’s coming whenever I hear that slow crunch of tires coming to a halt on the gravel road beside me.

I’ll straighten up out of the weed patch, turn my head, and the driver of the car will inevitably say the same thing.

“What the heck are you doing?”

And my response is always the same.

“I’m pulling knapweed.”

Usually, this is followed by a puzzled silence, and I begin to explain what this awful plant is and why I hate it so.

I have been fighting this weed for years and watching anxiously as it keeps spreading into new fields, along new roadways and even on remote trails in northern Minnesota.

I feel terrible about this.

Spotted knapweed puts out a pretty flower, I’ll grudgingly give it that. Bumblebees really like the blossoms, but almost nothing else will eat it, and it crowds out everything else. If it takes hold of your hayfield, for example, you’re in trouble. Within not too many years, you’ll be looking at nothing but knapweed — no timothy, no brome, no daisies, no alfalfa, no oatgrass, no nothing. Knapweed spreads, and spreads, and spreads.

Spray it with Round-up, and it’ll turn brown and die — but come back next year.

Yank off the flowering stem, and a dozen more vigorous branches will grow in its place.

Mow it down, and it will flower again, but flat against the ground and out of the mower’s reach.

Let the flowers run to seed, and they’ll stay viable for up to eight years. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds, and they easily take root in the crummiest kind of soil, where few other plants dare to grow.

I feel a little desperate when I think of all these factors, because I love fields, and I love the sunny spots where wooded trails open into secluded meadows. And I hate seeing this weed — or any other nasty exotic species – come in and spoil the party.

I’ve harbored a hatred of nearly all exotic species — except dandelions, I kind of like those — forever. And there are plenty of them to hate.

So I started fighting back. Yup, that would be me crouching in the ditch or just off the trail or stopped along the shoulder of the highway, pulling knapweed or purple loosestrife or leafy spurge or buckthorn shrubs out by the roots. It drives my husband crazy — he apparently can’t see the point in it all, and he refuses to help. So I do it by myself, often until my hands are raw, but my conscience feels a little better.

Biological weapons seem to be winning the loosestrife war, and I don’t see much leafy spurge around Embarrass any more. But the knapweed keeps spreading. This year I’m going to try a new chemical that is supposed to bring knapweed to its knees, and maybe that will hold off some of the spread. If not, I’ll keep pulling it, because I can’t stop myself.

Whenever I’m feeling particularly hopeless about it all, or wonder why in the hell I am crouching in a ditch instead of reading a book on my deck, I try to remember one old fellow who rolled up beside me while I was obsessively pulling knapweed.

He asked, I explained, and he nodded knowingly.

“Give ’er hell, hon,” he said, and drove off.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at