22 August 2008

Butte America and Weeds

It's a form of therapy: learning to accept and appreciate weeds. Like some people, weeds are disliked because they are "out of place" and do not serve others' needs. Living in Butte, Montana (aka ButteAmerica, pronounced as if it's all one word), one is often regarded as "Other" by fellow Montanans. For that reason if no other, a Buttian (or Walkervillian, in my case) should understand weeds.

This reminds me in some odd way of a short conversation while elk hunting. Because of a booming elk population, the Big Hole River watershed has become a popular hunting spot for folks from distant towns such as Helena, Missoula, and Kalispell. I mentioned this to a guy who pulled in behind my pickup at a favorite "secret" spot. I assumed that, because he knew how to get there, he was a local. My exact words were, as I recall, "Have you noticed all the riff-raff from Helena and Missoula hunting in the area this year?" His indignant reply was, after informing me that he was from Helena, "Well, that's the first time I heard anybody from Butte call anyone from somewhere else in the state 'riff-raff.'"

Well, anyway, Butte has lots of weeds. The soil was burned over by arsenic, sulfur, and heavy metals from the copper smelters a century ago. Recovery is still underway. But the barren soil became ideal habitat for hardy, introduced invasive plants such as Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa):

It's a late summer bloomer, and a favorite for bees and other pollinators. Cattle won't graze it, which is reason enough for it be a "noxious weed" in Montana culture. I don't want it in my yard, but there seems to be so much of it in the Butte surround that there's probably no getting rid of, short of "nuking" the soil with year-after-year herbicide treatments (which would wipe out everything but grass).

Of course, ranchers don't generally like native sagebrush either. A recent obituary for old Siv Seidensticker of Twin Bridge stated that burning & eradicating sagebrush was one of his favorite pursuits. Tell that to the elk and deer that depend on sagebrush for winter forage, or for the many birds that need the fragrant herb for food and nesting. Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) has been doing well on the Butte Hill in recent years:

Butter-and-Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) is an attractive European medicinal herb/invader. Long endemic to the eastern U.S., it has only recently become fairly common in western Montana:

Though not a weed, I include Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) because it is so frequently accused of causing pollen allergies (it blooms at the same time as ragweed, but is more conspicuous and thus gets blamed) and because a giant cousin was so common in the Allegheny fields of my youth:

Similarly, Rabbitbrush (Chrysomnus nauseosus) often seems weedy because it colonizes disturbed areas so readily. The flowerheads are attractive enough, but once they set seed and puff out they will be especially pretty:

Anyone know what this is? Maybe some kind of yellow aster?

White Campion (Silene latifolia) is another European invader that we might as well learn to live with:

Hoary Alyssum (Berteroa incana)is a weed new to Butte. Like other Europeans, it really takes to the place and has went from rare to common in just a few years. It rapidly takes over anywhere that people disturb soil for a house, ditch, driveway or -- especially -- with ATVs. It produces seeds in super-abundance, so the birds & mice probably like it:

Many of the mine dumps around Butte have been successfully revegetated with grasses and are now being colonized by sage brush, other native plants, and a few weeds. The big ongoing weed invasion, however, is on land torn-up by ATV (All Terrain Vehicle or "four wheeler") use. They are a most effective soil cultivator and weed spreader. Until Butte-Silver Bow gets a handle on limiting off road ATVs, weeds are assured of a good future.


Matt Vincent said...

The one you wanted identified is a native flowering forb called CURLYCUP GUMWEED. However, it does exhibit a lot of noxious behavior, such as spreading rampantly in disturbed areas. I personally like it.
As for the rest of the Butte weeds, in my opinion, we ought to just consider ourselves lucky we aren't Missoula, Intermountain Capitol of Noxious Weeds. Nothing is quite like the welcoming banner to both your east and west bound vistors of thousands of acres of untouched leafy spurge, dalmation toadflax and spotted knapweed.
But then again, if our soils (thank Mother Nature they're thin and mineralized, yes, even contaminated in some places) were rich and deep like the Garden City's, we'd be the champion of campion and all of the other who's whos in the weed world.

EcoRover said...

Curlycup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), what a great name! Sounds like the Forrest Gump of wildflowers--someone has probably written a novel about it.

Thank you for identifying the unknown wildflower, and for reminding me that weeds can be much, much worse. I spend most of my time along the Big Hole and in the hills & mountains, so home (Butte/Walkerville) are weedy by comparison.

"Champion of Campion," that's a catchy nickname for Missoula.


Interesting post. That is a hilarious 'riff-raff' story! That would tick me off too if hunters were coming over from other parts to 'harvest' our local wildlife. We have the same scenario here in our rural areas, a lot of locals see the city dwellers as 'invaders' and the city folk see the locals as 'undesirables'.

But there are also major consequences to pay when the money comes in (ie; city folk) and stays. It has happened all over and around our county already. We are about half-way to 3/4 of the way there already. The city dwellers buy up the land at over-inflated prices, everyone's taxes go up, and they effectively 'push out' the locals little by little because they can't afford the new taxes. The whole area becomes full of weekenders from the city who have vacation places here as second homes. It is kind of sad.

I didn't know your area had the prior major pollution problem. I guess I should say what area of the U.S. hasn't been damaged in the past by pollution in one form or fashion. I wonder if that soil contamination ever really leaves, or if there is any way to help nature restore the land? Does fire play a role in restoration of your lands there? Or are there any people who are using controlled burns to restore the native vegetation? We are really seeing some success stories here in central TX using fire to restore over-weeded and over-brushy covered areas that used to be native prairies. We have a Master Naturalist program and wildlife society coops who have both been working with the local communities to help with prescribed burns. It is still in the early stages, but so far, it seems to be helping and the results are drastic. I will try to post about it on my blog so you can see the before/after results.

Kathleen said...

interesting. all these weeds seem like wildflowers to me! I guess because I don't live amongst them?? I love the smell of sagebrush. Ran into a lady at DIA flying home to Georgia once that was carrying a "sprig" of sage brush in her hand as a memento of her trip west. It's one of those shrubs you can't imagine not having.

EcoRover said...

AIN, the "riff raff" story is probably common to all rural/small town folks and how they feel when the tourists (hunters or whatever) pour in.

Your comment about what happens when newcomers move in and change the very nature of the place is insightful and instructive. I think that has happened in many nearby places such as Missoula and Bozeman, where working people and middle income professionals can no longer afford a house. Luckily, Butte's Superfund has stalled that sort of boom--for now, anyway.

Butte is at the headwaters of America's largest Superfund site. Copper mining and smelting polluted 120 miles of the river, a broad swath of uplands, all with particular hotspots of high arsenic and heavy metals in mine tailings.

Clean up and restoration are underway, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, as with Milltown Dam near Missoula, public activism leads to good clean up and recovery. Other times, as with Opportunity downstream of Butte, waste gets stored in place with a thin coverup, and some serious home/yard contamination is also left in place.

As for fire, it is a very important component of how our predominantly lodgepole pine forest works. Lodgepoles get old (50 - 100 years), become prone to beetle infestation (which kills them), and then they burn. Nearby Yellowstone was a great example of this in 1988--the park is now lush & green. Locally we had some big fires in 2000 that are well down the road to recovery. The elk population typically doubles 3-4 years after the fire because of the abundant forage.

EcoRover said...

Thank Kathleen for the good perspective. I too love sagebrush, as do the elk, mule deer, antelope, grouse, song birds, rodents, rabbits & hares, etc.

But it's "inferior" forage for cattle, and so each year thousands of acres of sage are poisoned or burned to make way for more grass. It's a little like TroutBirder's native prairie that was plowed under.

Tammie Lee said...


Love the detail on the knapweed flower, really great to see the scallupy design. I always enjoy seeing flower pics and learning more about the plant. Thanks
Nice of you to drop by my blog!