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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Let's K-Vetch

The Cersei of the front garden is a cunning, ruthless, and good-looking adversary.

Vetch attempting a takeover. Image by Hans Braxmeier

I've many garden nemeses (yes I had to look up the plural of nemesis and that’s all there is to it, change the i to an e. Because so many of us have multiple nemeses of various kinds it’s probably a handy word to have on hand).

My nemeses of the plant kind are ruthless in their desire not to be eliminated. These include various weeds, invasive species, and most things thorny and/or butt-ugly. On our property, that’s the preponderance of living things. At least the place has greenery.

But then there’s vetch. Perhaps the sneakiest of them all. Call it what you will—crown vetch, purple vetch, turdhead—Coronilla varia by any other name would be as devious and dastardly. It’s the Cersei of plants.

Classified in the pea family Fabaceae, crown vetch shares the family tree with some 150 different species of vetch (thank you Siri). Among these are the fava bean (here’s looking at you, Sir Anthony), and Vicia americanus, which is native to North America and used as a farmland cover crop because it’s great at fixing nitrogen in the soil.

But let’s not get distracted. I’m talking about the Coronilla varia in my yard, a plant so insidious has landed on the U.S. forest Service’s “Weed of the Week” list, which if you’re not familiar is about as severe a reprimand as a horticulturalist can mete out. In the document, USFS says a single plant will blanket 100 square feet in only four years and is “a serious management threat to natural areas,” climbing over small trees and shrubs in its eagerness to envelop and choke out native plants and crops.

Vetch seed pods or Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Enter the front gate of Shiddygarden for a case study in why crown vetch is a serious management threat (although in our yard “management” is a nuanced term). It’s proven to be impervious to extraction, curses, and weeping, all employed with various degrees of intensity.

Extraction is especially tricky because of the plant’s black ops abilities. It slithers along on creeping roots, hidden underneath a patch of phlox or canopy of lily leaves, sending up slender tendrils that emerge into the sunlight perfectly camouflaged, waiting, snickering probably, until you lean over to shut off the spigots and then the whole lot of them grows seed pods and by the time you straighten up all the seed pods have matured and blackened and broken open and scattered hundreds of fresh little nijas all over everything. Boom! Done! Suck it! says crown vetch.

Curled, blackened, empty seed pods say, "You're too late! It's over! Suck it! Just wait 'til next year, you're going to have a vetch hangover like you wouldn't believe!"

This tendency of crown vetch to secretly grow among other plants makes it impossible to eliminate by chemical means, which we wouldn’t do anyway. We're a totally organic property, which is probably why everything is such a mess.

Be that as it may, I do wage a yearly campaign against the crown vetch. In early summer I get out there on my hands and knees, searching for the tiny paired leaves that indicate the creeping roots, trying to intercept the plant before it’s had a chance to drop seeds. I slide my hand along the stem as far as I can and yank. Because the stems are long and thin, they generally break off before you can pull out the buried heart of the plant, the heart that you know is still down there, somewhere, black and beating.

This year was an incredible setback. Vetch exploded everywhere: bold, strong, hardy. It was a serious repudiation—maybe even conscious mockery—of the vetch-removal work I’d done the previous spring. This year’s plants leapt over ground cover, swirled their way through the sagging hyacinth and clambered, defiantly, to the tops of the butterfly bush (which is the sterile kind or butterfly bush and isn’t the invasive miscreant that is illegal in our state and others).

I pulled out handfuls of vetch. There was some collateral damage—not a few phlox and other nice things got ripped out as well—call me enthusiastic—but I did remove several bucketfuls of vetch from the front flower garden alone.

Ultimately, I was no match. One morning I looked out and saw I’d been outwitted—dry, blackened husks of empty seed pods littered the front garden. I hadn’t been vigilant enough. Judging by the number of open seed pods, the vetch had successfully self-seeded itself for the foreseeable future. It’s ability to outlast its opponent has become legend in our yard. Game on.

Anyway, if allowed to grow crown vetch does have sprightly pinkish flowers, and some people like it for its toughness, the way it relentlessly imposes itself on the land. During spring in our valley you can see huge swaths of purplish vetch strewn across the far greening mountainsides, and it’s a sight to behold.

Vetch colors the Bear Creek valley. (C) Sean Bagshaw,

But I appreciate a good nemesis, if not a few nemeses. I like the chess match, the contest of wills, the commitment. It’s the best story plot ever—Good versus Evil—and it’s at the heart of human existence (and at the heart of the vetchism). Game on. By the way I get to be the “Good” in this allegory because I’m writing this and vetch does not have a competing blog that I know of. However, who knows if Evil may yet triumph? It's likely that after the Apocalypse the only things left will be hot lava, cockroaches, and crown vetch, and for that it has my begrudging respect.

Until then, game on indeed.

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