Opinion: Invasion of the purple flowers


Commentary by Ward Degler

It’s called lanium amplexicaule, but most folks just call it henbit. It’s that bright purple flower that has taken over the farm fields this spring.

Henbit is an arable minor weed, which means it reseeds itself when the wind blows. It’s popping up just about everywhere these days, and by all accounts it’s kind of pretty.

The plant originally came from the Mediterranean countryside but has been in the United States and heavily around the Midwest for several generations.  One of the reasons it is so prolific is traced to a professor at the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri.

His name has sunk into obscurity, possibly at his own request, since he obviously had no clue how widely and rapidly the weed would spread.

What the good professor did was have farmers plant henbit as a green crop, one that would hold the soil against wind erosion during the winter and would add valuable nutrients when plowed under in the spring.

All of that worked fine, and everybody was happy with Operation Henbit. Until it became apparent that it was spreading beyond the farm fields. People’s lawns, city, county and state parks, along with highway rights-of-way and golf courses, were suddenly turning purple in the spring.

Wind from cars driving by fields would pick up the seeds and scatter them far and wide. Henbit was suddenly everywhere.

And it still is, and will likely continue. Sort of the way residual growth of multiflora rose keeps showing up around the countryside.

Multiflora was another wonderful idea that backfired. The plan, launched at the end of World War II, was the rose could be planted along the borders of farm fields where it would take the place of expensive fencing. Moreover, it grew into a dense hedge, which provided habitat for upland game – rabbits, quail, pheasants. Everybody was a winner! Until folks realized that birds ate the seeds and planted them where they roosted.

Suddenly, multiflora rose was cropping up everywhere.

Within a few years state departments of agriculture around the Midwest changed the classification of multiflora rose from beneficial hedging to noxious weed. Missouri and several other states launched vigorous extermination programs.

Several similar herbicide protocols have taken up arms against the henbit invasion. Wheat farmers are especially cursed since the henbit comes up at the same time as the winter wheat.

The battle lines have been drawn, and war has been declared. So far, henbit is winning.