Rage against the King of Noxious Weeds

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    I took a “Weeds of Wyoming” class at UW one summer as a partial fulfillment of the teaching recertification process. It proved to be one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, and by recent count, that total is above 70 undergraduate and graduate level classes.

    A weed is defined simply as a “plant out of place.”


    By that definition, corn stalks rising from a newly planted alfalfa field, or the sprouts of last summer’s oats springing up in the grass around the haystack are also weeds.

    A Russian Olive near Pavillion silhouetted against the setting sun – h/t Randy Tucker

    One weed that continues to plague our little portion of paradise is often considered a tree, but make no mistake, the Russian Olive is a noxious weed.

    This European invader is one of the toughest, most pernicious, and most difficult invasive species to eradicate. It rivals the Canada thistle, carp, and English starling, other common foreign invaders, in its ability to gain a foothold and never give up.

    As a kid, I experienced the joys (where is the sarcasm font?) of dealing with Russian Olives.


    Before we go much further, for those of you who don’t know what a Russian Olive is, here is the description from one of my favorite reference books, “Weeds of the West.” (Pages 302 & 303 if you’re scoring at home)

    “A fast-growing tree of moderate size, normally reaching heights from 10 to 25 feet. Trunks and branches are armed with 1 to 2-inch wood thorns. Leaves are narrow, 2 to 3 inches long, and covered with minute scales which give the foliage a distinctive silvery appearance.”

    After a few more sentences the true identity of his menace is revealed, “However, when allowed to invade low-lying pastures, meadows, or waterways it can become a serious weed problem.”


    A serious weed problem? The Russian Olive, Elaeagnus augustifloia L. (scientific name) is all of that, and a lot more, a weed on steroids if you will.

    My first job with FICA, income tax, and Wyoming Retirement deducted from each paycheck came when I was 16 and working with Cliff Stickney at the Wind River Elementary and Junior High School in Pavillion. I helped Cliff in sanding and refinishing the gym floor, repaired lockers, painted, and moved teachers’ classrooms, but the best part of the job was spent outside in the summer sun, mowing lawns, and irrigating.

    Irrigating proved to be frustrating at times thanks to the many Russian Olives lining the ditch to the school.


    The seeds they produce aren’t olives at all, but just a waxy-coated kernel that is inedible to everything aside from a few species of birds and goats. Yep, goats really will eat anything and thrive.

    Those seeds are buoyant, that’s part of the magic in how easily Russian Olives proliferate and spread across the landscape.

    Back to that summer class at UW, it’s a process the professor called water dispersal. Other seeds float in the air, as in dandelions and cottonwood lint with wind dispersion, and still others stick to your socks or your dog’s fur in a process called active transport.

    Russian Olives do their thing with water, but unlike the action at Hugh Hefner’s pool in the 1960s, the result is pure malevolence.

    After setting up hand lines of 3” aluminum pipe each morning to water the playgrounds and football fields at Pavillion, I’d prime, then turn on the main electric pumps that brought the water from a ditch to the irrigation pipe. On good days, the line would pressure up, the sprinklers would spit air, then a little water, and finally pop up proudly under good pressure. On bad days, a few would do that with a lot more weakly spraying water around the nozzle of the sprinkler head.

    Russian Olives in the line were the culprit.

    We had a filter screen at the pump to keep the olives away, but a handful always snuck through and when they did, they were just a fraction of an inch larger than the sprinkler orifice and stuck in the line, blocking the water.

    There were two ways to unclog the olive block. The first was to take a small crescent wrench, unscrew the nozzle and knock the olive out. That wasn’t too bad on hot July afternoons when the temperature hit triple digits, but it was no way to start a cool morning at 7 am since you were soaked head to toe in the process.

    Cliff preferred the second method. He carried a nut pick, the kind you use to pull the meat out of a walnut. Cliff came up behind the sprinkler, held it away from him, and gingerly picked the olive apart until the line ran clean.

    I didn’t have a nut pick, but discovered a 16-penny nail, bent into a curve with the point ground to a sharp chisel shape worked great. I made dozens of them over the next two summers.

    You started at one end, pried out the olives, and worked until the line was clear, then on bad mornings you did it again.

    After a few hours, I went back outside and cleared it again. It was a routine about four or five times every day as the olives always found a few heads to block.

    Jump ahead a few decades, and I’ve declared war on these foul-smelling, thorn-invested invaders from west of the Ural Mountains.

    The problem is their toughness. When you cut one down with a chainsaw, plan on resharpening the chain after each tree if their trunks are larger than six inches in diameter. If you cut in the dim light of early morning or late evening, you can see sparks flying off the chain on your saw. Russian Olives like cottonwoods absorb grains of sand that blow into them, this is terrible on a chainsaw.

    Each time I saw down a tree I take a little Benadryl before I get started since there is no way to avoid the thorns and my arms are always bleeding and my shirt torn by the time these little monsters hit the ground.

    An added feature of the Russian Olives defense system is an allergen on each thorn that creates an annoying itch when it punctures the skin.

    They have a few virtues. Some birds love the protection they provide in nesting among the thorns, the wood burns hot, almost like hickory or oak in its intensity, but thorny branches require leather gloves to toss on the fire.

    I milled a few large eight-inch Russian Olive logs into lumber a couple of years ago. It smells terrible when you cut it, but the gold, green, gray, and brown swirl of the wood is unique, almost enticing. It’s a fibrous wood, meaning you have to seal it, or tiny hairs will eventually emerge no matter how fine you sand it.

    But it is an attractive wood for small boxes, trim work, and other ornamental projects.

    Aside from these limited virtues, it lives up to its description as the largest noxious weed found in the wilds of Wyoming.

    Some claim Russian Olive smells great. I say, call immigration if you hear anyway say that. They must be Russian operatives.


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