By Baxter Black
I remember the first time I ever went to Florida. It was in the cow country around Wachula that I first saw Palmetto.
Copses of palm trees, cypress and yellow pine stood like islands in a sea of green grass. Hammocks, the locals called the “islands,” were carpeted with low-lying exotic-looking jagged-leafed plants. From a distance it appeared to be professionally landscaped. Palmetto, they said.
I was reminded of that day last winter when a visitor stared out on a flat Arizona desert pasture packed paddle to paddle, joint to joint with prickly pear and cholla. He remarked that it looked like a xeriscaped garden featured in Arizona Highways Magazine. But, as any cow, cowboy or horse can tell you, a chase through a cholla forest is akin to being attacked by an army of maddened kindergarten teachers armed with staple guns.
I learned later after chasing a cow through the Palmetto that it, too, is not as innocent as brushing up against a feather boa. It grows in giant clumps of tangley roots and stems. Rough and hard as cottonwood bark, big as small culverts with stiff sharp spiney saw-tooth leaves. Riding through it can be compared to tip-toeing through a bed of petrified sewer pipe all wrapped in porcupine coats.
Palmetto are very difficult plants to eradicate, as my friend Henry confirmed. In an effort to improve the value of his house in town, Henry decided a lawn in back would be a nice place to entertain friends. Certainly, when compared to its present moonscape/landfill motif that featured ragweed, a dead plum tree sapling and the engine block off his ’73 Dodge pickup.
His county agent suggested an initial fertilizing and roto-tilling. Thrifty Henry made arrangements with the local feed lot to simply wash out three livestock trailers in his backyard. The deed was done. Three loads of 200-weight 3-year olds from the Everglades were unloaded at the feedlot and the trailers hosed out in Henry’s yard. Apparently the calves had been eating Palmetto seeds.
By June, Henry’s yard looked like a pineapple field. By July, a tequila plantation, in August a green oil refinery. Henry fought back with weed-eaters, tin snips, machetes, chain saws, Spanish goats, backhoes, spray planes, dynamite and nuclear weapons. For three years he tried to beat back the green tsunami that threatened to overtake his home. Finally he sold it to a snowbird from Chicago who covered the whole back yard with a net and built a parrot sanctuary.
In our innocence we see beauty in the world around us. Just last week a lady in town remarked on the beauty of the tall purple-plumed plants blooming in the ditch on the way to town. Russian Thistle, I explained.