February 26, 2024

Rural Issues: What’s natural?

As I pen this column, farmers are farming like nobody’s business. Spring planting is going strong across much of the Midwest.

In cow country, many of us have, with a sigh of relief, taken bale forks off tractors. Like many others, we were cutting it a little too close for comfort on hay stocks.

With the help of fertilizer and faith, perhaps the 2023 hay crop will yield better than last year’s.

My team of reporters at Brownfield Ag News has done many interviews about weeds late this winter and into spring. Weeds are an ever-present challenge for farmers, ranchers and gardeners.

From marestail to Palmer amaranth, waterhemp to giant ragweed, morning glory to lambsquarters, you have your hands full keeping fields, pastures and gardens clean. Henbit and purple deadnettle together are the current bane of my flowerbeds.

I was scrolling through social media one morning a couple of weeks ago before going out to mix up a batch of glyphosate. I needed to spray winter annuals before tilling gardens and a couple of flower beds.

It was almost as if Facebook knew my planned task, as my feed was rife with “non-chemical weed killer” posts and anti-glyphosate comments.

Many people fail to realize that exposure at some level to many weeds can cause health problems.

If you Google “poisonous plants,” you’ll find that many plants commonly used as food have toxic parts, are toxic unless they are processed or are toxic at certain stages of development.

The leaves and/or seeds of cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, apples and almonds contain a small amount of something called amygdalin, which is a cyanogenic glycoside. The quantity is not usually enough to endanger a person, but it is possible to ingest enough seeds to kill you.

Rhubarb leaf stalks, or petioles, are edible, but the leaves themselves contain oxalic acid, which is a nephrotoxic and corrosive acid present in many plants. Symptoms of poisoning include kidney disorders, convulsion and coma — although rarely does it kill a person.

You might have seen the recipe for a “non-chemical” weed killer containing Epsom salt, white vinegar and Dawn dishwashing liquid. I got a pretty good chuckle out of a post I saw on Facebook suggesting the solution is certainly not non-chemical in its makeup.

Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. Vinegar consists of acetic acid, water and trace amounts of other chemicals.

The ingredients in Dawn dishwashing liquid are water, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, lauramine oxide, alcohol denat, sodium chloride, PPG-26, PEG-8 propylheptyl ether, PEU-14 PEG-10/PPG-7 copolymer, phenoxyethanol, triclosan, methylisothiazolinone and fragrance.

Poison hemlock killed Socrates, castor beans contain the poison ricin, and white snakeroot is responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother. We’ve all heard of deadly nightshade, and, of course, tobacco is a poisonous plant.

Although pretty to look at, lantana, lily of the valley, foxglove and Chinese lanterns can be toxic if eaten. Consider the rash and blistering that can occur with exposure to stinging nettle; poisons ivy, oak and sumac; and my least favorite: poison parsnips.

Just because something is “natural” does not mean it is 100% nontoxic. Just like you aren’t going to eat a peck of apple seeds, you aren’t going to bathe in glyphosate or spike your coffee with it.

Cyndi Young-Puyear

Cyndi Young-Puyear

Cyndi Young-Puyear is farm director and operations manager for Brownfield Network.