Most various are the ways and most interesting are the natural mechanical appliances by which plant offspring are helped to leave the place of their birth and " strike out in the world for themselves." All seeds are great travelers; they are carried by wind and water, by wild and domesticated animals, and by birds; they journey by highway and railroad and are parts of steamship cargoes. By far the worst culprit of all, in the distribution of seeds of the kind of plants most adverse to his prosperity, is the farmer himself.
Wind-carried seeds are of many kinds. Some, like the Dandelion, Milkweeds, and Thistles, and the pernicious Orange Hawkweed, are made buoyant by a parachute of fine, downy plumes on which they are lifted and wafted away on even the gentlest breeze. In other cases, like those of Tumbling Mustard and Russian Thistle, the entire plant is broken off at its base or its shallow roots are wrenched from the soil, and it is sent rolling and tumbling along the ground, shaking out its seeds as it goes. Over the wide levels of the prairie states these weeds travel far, but they are not so much to be dreaded in the much-fenced and uneven country of the East. The encrusting of snow in winter makes a smooth surface over which many seeds may be blown abroad that would not otherwise be able to get far away from their parent plant. Some seeds, like the Docks, have corky, membranous wings which not only help to upbear them on the wind but also cause them to float on water. Some plants, like the Oxalis, or Ladies' Sorrel, and the Crane's-bill, are furnished with spring guns which shoot the seeds to some distance.
Many very "pesky" weeds are so because their seeds are gifted by nature with such a marvelous variety of teeth, hooks, and barbs, by which they are able to catch and cling to the fur or wool of animals and to the clothing of passers-by. Burdocks and Cockle-burs, Beggarlice, and the Pitchfork Weed, or Devil's Bootjack, are a few of the many that are provided with this means of helping themselves to "fresh fields and pastures new."
Birds may undoubtedly be blamed for the appearance of some weeds in new locations, particularly when they are found springing up along telegraph lines or fences. But birds aid the farmer far more as weed destroyers than they do him injury as weed disseminators. Neglected roadsides and lanes; old pastures where the grazing animals have persistently passed by the plants that they did not like; stubbles where weeds have been permitted to spring up and mature seed after harvest; borders of fields and meadows and other waste places of the land, - all are most industriously gleaned throughout the summer, autumn, and winter months by seed-eating birds. Birds have keen appetites and swift digestion. It is safe to say that each Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, or Snow Bunting needs at least a quarter-ounce of food daily to sustain life; and if the number of these feathered benefactors average no more than a dozen to the square mile, in the aggregate the amount of noxious stuff disposed of would reach many tons. The few seeds that are dropped in the culling of these bird meals or that pass uninjured through the digestive tract are of small account when compared to so great a service.
The spreading of stable manure before decomposition is a very common source of weed infestation; and the statement is here repeated that it is better to lose a large part of its fertilizing quality by composting all such material, than to ensure future loss and needless labor by such soil contamination.
One place where weeds are too frequently neglected is on land belonging to the community at large. Along roads, canals, and other public places they are allowed to bloom and mature their seeds, becoming a menace to all near-by property, because " what is everybody's business is nobody's business." The public sees the wisdom and economy of supporting Game Commissioners in every county; and no less wise an outlay would be the appointment of County Weed Commissioners, to whom should be entrusted the supervision, not only of the public domain, but also of individual holdings which, through neglect, might become a menace to the community. The most ignorant and careless cultivator of the land is often the most easy to offend, and complaint and correction, as well as instruction in better methods, would be more cordially received from such an accredited officer than from aggrieved neighbors.
But the most prolific source of weed infestation in all parts of the country is in the sale and exchange of commercial seeds and foodstuffs. It is well known that the introduction and subsequent spread in this country of some of its most aggressive and unmanageable land-plagues, as the Orange Hawkweed, the Russian Thistle, and the Penny-cress, or Frenchweed, are due to this agency. In many parts of the country the business is carried on unchecked by inspection or restriction of any kind, and in communities possessed of laws for such regulation these are often inoperative through negligence. This is a state of affairs that works great injustice to both the merchant and the farmer. Itinerant presses are hauled about the country, putting hay and straw into bales convenient for transportation. When shipped away for sale, a hay-bale may contain a large percentage of Ox-eye Daisy, Yarrow, Ragweed, or Wild Carrot, rendering it unpalatable and innutritious to stock and a lasting damage to the fields where the refuse is spread; yet it may bring nearly as good a price as another bale of clean Timothy or Blue Grass. Were the "pressmen" obliged by law to tag every bale according to its quality, growers would be made more heedful of their own shortcomings, and salesmen would be less blamed for a matter over which they have little control.
On both sides of the steel track, long green trails, composed largely of pernicious kinds of growth, have been drawn over the country by the railways, for which they have been called to account and obliged to spend enormous sums yearly in keeping their rights-of-way in order. The cost of weed removal along the railways of the one state of Ohio is placed by Stair at over a half-million of dollars per annum. Yet it is to be remembered that the railways are merely carriers, probably preferring to haul good, rather than bad, merchandise, and having nothing to do with the composition of the cargoes that have leaked and spilled so much vexation to the cultivators along their routes. The farmer who blames the railway for a new pest in his fields may have shipped some that are just as troublesome to other localities.
Many American farmers are very unwise and shortsighted in the matter of sowing impure seed. The labor and care required to remove all seeds of an undesirable kind, differing as they do in size, form, and weight, makes both "grain-seed" and "grass-seed" of first quality very expensive; but in the end it is the cheapest of all, and no other should be sown. Its extra cost is never so great as to overbalance the loss from weed-starved crops, requiring extra labor to harvest, to say nothing of infesting the land itself with some long-lived nuisance which it may take years to destroy. If ever a man may be characterized as "penny-wise and pound-foolish" it is the farmer who, from ill-advised motives of present economy, would so wrong his own property and endanger all neighboring possessions.