Words & Weeds

Buzzards perch on blackened redwood stumps just below the house on sunny mornings, spreading their wings wide like avian sunbathers soaking in the rays. When the breezes pick up, those same buzzards swoop on the wind drafts in the draw that extends from below this house to the bottom lands next to the remains of Uncle Charlie’s cabin. The same wind currents that provide the swirling, soaring air circus for the buzzards pushes the morning fog of summer downriver to the sea where hot-land tourists toddle about in shorts, most but not all masked on the mean streets of Mendocino. They pass some vacant shops and probably don't fully connect closed businesses to the pandemic until they encounter the shut door at Dick's Place bar.

In town, the tourists wander in and out of shop and store designed just for them, unperturbed by the vagaries of nature. Back at the ranch, bevies of California quail have been making their presence known for weeks. Fledglings by the dozen are called across dirt roads to the protection of blackberry thickets or high grass by parents slurring a series of three notes; almost always the middle note highest pitched and loudest.  

The word quail derives from the Dutch language (kwakkel) and Middle Low German (quackele) which, almost obviously, means quack. It may be no surprise that quail are related to waterfowl, but certainly they sound nothing like a duck. The technical name for our local quail is Lophortyx californicus: loph from the Greek for crest or tuft, though their plumage resembles more a single dark feather arcing forward over the head; broader and slightly more elongated on males.

When I was a boy, many years ago, quail skittered and flew about so plentiful up and down the Albion that my father often hunted them. Prepared properly they make a far tastier entrée than many a chicken dinner. Much has changed along this river in my relatively brief lifetime. No one in my family has hunted quail in decades; pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium or Pulegium vulgar) has grown so profusely on the bottom lands in some years that an entire covey of fledging quail struggle to move through it.    

Pennyroyal is a non-native invasive perennial mint. Well before full bloom, its pungent minty odor is unmistakable. It blooms in densely clustered whorls near its upper nodes in shades from blue to violet or pink. Its native land rests across the sea in Ireland. Maybe it followed my mother’s Irish ancestors to northern California. Pennyroyal supposedly thrives in vernally flooded bottom lands. Though spring rains can be abundant here, the Albion River rarely overflows its banks in spring. Pennyroyal does grow best in heavily silted soil. Silt covered the Albion bottom lands unnaturally after Masonite Corporation performed unusually heavy excavation and grading immediately adjacent to the river in the early 1950s. Trees, rocks and large amounts of dirt were bulldozed directly into the stream in order to widen the old railroad grade into a logging truck road. The following winter’s floodwaters deposited so much silt on the fields here that a redwood post and picket fence near the riverbank, constructed by my Macdonald grandfather and his visiting Nova Scotian brothers in the 1890s, was buried so thoroughly that only stubs of less than a foot in height remained.   

Certain experts on plants have stated that pennyroyal’s “capacity to displace native plant species is uncertain.” On this ranch, pennyroyal has most definitely displaced and replaced hundreds, if not thousands, of feet of natural grasslands. Pennyroyal proves a sneaky invader.  Once established, it survives the winter as subterranean rhizomes. Until late spring it remains largely unseen. After the heaviest winter moisture dries off, the alternating temperatures in early summer (fog and sun) promote flowering.

Currently, there is only a trifling of scientific writing on pennyroyal, thus natural methods of eradication are not thoroughly proven.  One of the better guesses is that several consecutive years of mowing or weed whacking may help turn the tide on controlling this insidious invader. Of course, nothing beats a great deal of patience, stamina, and hard work in pulling it out by the roots. This method has greatly diminished the spread in the yard around my house.

(Nature often has its way at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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