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flat barbed weed seed that sticks to my shoelaces

Weed seeds spread in a variety of ways, whether traveling by water, by air, or on animals. The group of weeds nicknamed the “hitchhikers” are seeds that stick to clothing and fur, making it difficult to dislodge them immediately. Their variously barbed adaptations ensure that the seeds will travel far and wide via animal locomotion, and most can be eventually shaken off down the road somewhere.

Although it might sound like all fun and games, the weeds spread by people are not only difficult to contain, they’re costly for everyone. Farmers lose an estimated $7.4 billion each year in productivity to eradicate these pest plants. Humans are spreading these seeds at a rate of 500 million to one billion seeds a year in cars alone!

What are Hitchhiker Weeds?

You can help slow the spread of these hitchhikers by carefully inspecting your clothing and pets before emerging from a wild area full of seeding plants, making sure to leave those unwanted weeds behind. Also, reseeding disturbed areas like your garden plot with a cover crop can ensure that there’s too much competition for hitchhikers to thrive.

Although the weeds within crop stands are annoying, those that appear in fields can be downright dangerous for grazing animals like horses and cattle.

Once those weeds emerge, digging them out is the only cure. Make sure to get three to four inches (7.5 to 10 cm.) of root when the plant is young, or else it’ll grow back from root fragments. If your problem plant is already flowering or going to seed, you can clip it at the ground and carefully bag it for disposal – composting will not destroy many of these types of weeds.

Herbicides can be used to keep the seeds from germinating, but the best ways to get rid of sandbur are (a) mow and water your Bermuda grass frequently, (b) plant St. Augustine grass, which shades and crowds out sandbur, or (c) pull the sandbur out. One A&M specialist confessed that it took him three years to get his yard sticker-free using the last method, but it worked.

The sticker comes from a lateral and low-growing grasslike weed called the sandbur, which has been causing trouble for quite some time. It was first identified in the eighteenth century by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, author of Species Plantarum, the seminal work in plant taxonomy. The burs are actually spiny seeds that mature in the summer, just in time to torture tiny feet. “No other grassy plant has this . . . lance-armed bur, and a description therefore is almost useless,” writes Edwin Rollin Spencer in All About Weeds. <“He who finds a sand bur does not have to be told what it is.”

Into each and every barefoot Texas childhood a little sticker bur must fall.

The sticker bur served notice to suburban children that the Texas landscape, however well fenced, watered, graveled, or gardened, remained untamed and inhospitable. As part of a roving band of neighborhood kids, I learned to survey yards like a point man heading into dangerous territory. A dry, patchy lawn was best avoided, though a healthy-looking turf of Bermuda grass held no promise of safety either. Sticker grass was usually paler and spinier than Bermuda, but that difference was discernible only at very close range.

I was in my early teens before I realized that children in other parts of the country could run barefoot through tall grass without fear. Any child who attempted to do so in Central Texas—or in most parts of the state, for that matter—was either very brave or just plain foolish. For Texas fields and lawns had little in common with the velvety expanses of, say, Massachusetts or Northern California. Here, defenseless children had to contend with grass that concealed chiggers, mesquite thorns, hackberry branches, and, grizzliest of all, a small brown barb known to connoisseurs as the sticker bur, land mine of the backyard. No instep, no matter how proudly toughened on sizzling pavement, could endure it.

Our gang may not have known where stickers came from (I believed they were prickly pear burs, blown in from the desert), but we knew full well what they could do. When little Stan Shaw, one of our bravest members, would show off by racing up the street through the grass, the rest of us would wait to hear his strangled yelp—akin to that of a betrayed cocker spaniel. Then we knew the sticker had struck, and another yard was off-limits. Those were tragic moments for us because alternate routes were scarce: Even in October the asphalt was searing, and armies of red ants patrolled the curbs. Of course, no self-respecting Texas child would be caught dead doing the sensible thing, which was to put on a pair of shoes.

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t hate the sandbur. Weed specialists use words like “nuisance,” “pernicious,” “noxious,” and “hateful” to describe it. “It’s considered one of the real bad grasses,” says Texas A&M extension weed specialist Rupert Palmer. Cows and sheep dislike sandbur because it is painful to eat; commercial stockmen hate sandbur because it contaminates wool and mohair and is grounds for docking at time of sale. Suburbanites hate sandbur because it hides and breeds in their Bermuda grass.