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Country matters: Lemon painted-cup taking over

6/7/2013

Every once in a while a new wildflower shows up in our pasture. These plant gypsies usually appear out of nowhere, stick around for a while, then vanish almost as quickly as they came.

Every once in a while a new wildflower shows up in our pasture. These plant gypsies usually appear out of nowhere, stick around for a while, then vanish almost as quickly as they came.

Through the years we have seen the anemone, spiderwort and Venus looking glass come and go, and this year our creeping fleabane vanished. I was greatly disappointed to see the fleabane go because of its rather limited range -- one source placed it in only two counties in Kansas.

Knowing these transients were not likely to remain for long, I did my best to encourage them to stay. The friendly approach worked well -- until the day that lemon painted-cup came along.

Lemon painted-cup is a yellow flower in the figwort family, which contains foxglove, snapdragon and other cultivated ornamentals. Within the subgroup of painted cups, we find the colorful Indian paintbrush, a wildflower with bright scarlet plumes that Bryant described as "glowing in the green like flakes of fire." Lemon painted-cup is less impressive but still with beauty enough to charm.

And charm it did. I kept a close eye on it through that first year, watching it grow and following it through its cycle from flower to seed and from green to ruddy brown.

The next spring it bloomed again, and I could not have been more delighted.

After that it continued to flourish, slowly at first and then more rapidly. One flower became a handful, the handful a cluster, and the cluster a loose colony. Then it seemed to grow legs. It ran across the lawn. It jumped the draw to the gravel pit. It leapfrogged along the trail. It skipped over to the hill south of the house.

Everywhere it went it sprouted a new colony, and the more it spread the more it lost its charm.

Then one day I happened to notice a circle of dead grass around one of the plants. Lemon painted-cup, it turns out, is parasitic on the roots of other plants. It kills off everything that grows near it.

By now the plant was everywhere, the charm was gone, and I was ready to declare war. Flooding the place with herbicides was not an option, so I attacked it with the mower. All that spring and summer I mowed lemon painted-cup. I mowed it along with the grass. I mowed it over the hills. I mowed it across the lawn and down the trail. I mowed it everywhere within reach.

But the following spring it was back again, blooming like nothing happened. Then I went after it with a shovel and dug it up by the bucket-full. That continued on and off for a couple of years, but it was a losing battle and I finally had to give up the fight.

Lemon painted-cup seems to be on a mission to conquer the state. In 1961, Stevens placed it in three counties along the Oklahoma border. By 1979, Barr put it as far north as Rush County. In 1992, I found it in my pasture here in Ellis County, and it likely has claimed more counties since then.

Our experiences with nature often are humbling. She doesn't ask our opinion or seek our approval. She doesn't fuss and fret about the concerns of humankind. Sometimes she is just interested in growing a wildflower.