In One Weed Lies the Whole World
It’s no secret that the yellow starthistle, with its deep taproot, spiked head, incredible endurance, resistance to control, and toxicity to horses, can be a nuisance. However, the starthistle also tells the story of America. It is an opportunistic plant, “pioneering” (Maddock 12) and resilient. In this way, we might the starthistle as an embodiment of American ideals and a symptom of their failure. In Capitalism in the Web of Life, Jason Moore asks readers to attend to how capitalism works as and through nature, and looking at the yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis), we can see how one weed expresses the power to limit capital accumulation and even represent an opportunity for land-based liberation.
Centaurea solstitialis was most likely introduced to the US as a contaminant of Chilean alfalfa seed in the early 1800s. The introduction of the yellow starthistle to the United States represents a tremendous irony that often goes unmentioned in the discussion over native and invasive species: weeds are imported alongside desirable aliens that make up the bulk of the American agricultural industry. In “How the West Was Lost,” John Gerlach writes that “the enormous international trade in alfalfa seed resulted in a worldwide distribution of the weed component of the forage crop/weed system,” which accounts for weed’s presence in most temperate areas around the world (Zouhar).
The yellow starthistle was a common weed by the beginning of the twentieth century. In the California Central Valley, it was considered a serious problem in grain fields, and as a common impurity in alfalfa and other seeds. The pathway from field to rangeland and common weed to invasive alien warrants inspection. We might begin by considering the conditions in which yellow starthistle thrives, noting the distinct through-line of preceding human contact and impact.
Roadsides, abandoned fields and pastures, disturbed habitats, recreational areas, and waste places are the most common habitats of the yellow starthistle (Zouhar). Disturbed habitats are especially significant, as they represent an upset of ecosystem structure and functionality. Once an invasive alien such as the starthistle moves in, the cause of the original disturbance is likely to be lost in the weeds. This logic applies to other habitats as well, and after settling, the yellow starthistle has come to stand in for the abandonment, waste, and neglect that preceded it and which made the land vulnerable to its invasion.
We can see this kind of narrative discontinuity in the story of the starthistle’s “jump” from field to rangeland. Rangeland is grassland put to work; producing goods and services including livestock grazing, a practice with its own tremendous impact that should not be neglected in accounting for changes to land over time. Part of managing rangeland is the alteration of fire regimes, which is a major contributing factor in the success of yellow starthistle in grassland areas. “Yellow starthistle did not occur in these communities at the time in which historic fire regimes were functioning, but has established since fire exclusion began.” Significantly, prescribed fire programs have resulted in large reductions of the plant and increased native plant diversity.
We can read the yellow starthistle as a sign of the times, indicating a turning point at which nature resists being cashed-in as easily as it once was. At some point we set aside or abandoned the land where the weed thrives, and now it’s too expensive to take back. The significance of invasive species is not simply that they are difficult to control, but that they reveal that the organizing principles managing land, labor, and the economy have gone off the rails. Pointing to nonnative species as the primary threat to biodiversity distracts from destructive human processes and displaces blame onto “alien invaders.” Is it the yellow starthistle, or is it us?