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 Texas : Features : Music : "Words and Music"

Days of Whine,
Bear Grass, Nettles and Burrs

by Dorothy Hamm
Green pastures of coastal Bermuda with horses or cows and even an occasional emu, are common sights now in the rural areas around Athens, Texas. On hot days cows lie with their legs neatly tucked beneath them in the shade of post oak trees. Often there is a pond nearby, a small, round mirror in which the blue sky above likes to admire its reflection when the livestock aren't drinking from it. The peacefulness in these softly rolling hills is a soothing balm for frazzled city nerves.

This area was a bit less tranquil in the late 1940s when my family, four children and two adults, settled into a sandy land farm near the Willow Springs community and began an association with the flora and fauna of the area. We managed to cope with snakes such as the ground rattler and copperhead, while wild plums, black berries muscadine grapes, squirrels, ducks, deer, and even an occasional armadillo, found its way to our dinner table. Our biggest battles, in my mind at least as we worked to reclaim fallow fields, were with bear grass, bull nettles and grass burrs. These three prickly plants, though unrelated genetically, are often found growing in close proximity to each other in the sandy hills of the area.


Bear grass is a type of yucca. It is quite beautiful, especially when in bloom. A stalk grows from the center of a clump of needle-sharp “blades.” In a brief period of time it bursts out with a showy array of creamy blossoms. Its hardy ability to withstand heat, drought and neglect have endeared it to modern landscapers. However, I don’t recall that we spent much time admiring it in those long ago days.

Working in the hot sun, we dug up the tough prickly plant with a grubbing hoe and tossed it on a burning brush pile. The final step in the procedure was to pour a little burnt oil (recycled from the car) on the remaining root which reached deep into the sandy soil. We were told that if we did not kill it with the oil, this resilient desert plant would most likely to grow back.

I must say that bear grass was an honest and honorable opponent when compared with the bull nettle and the grass burr. While the bear grass had its sharp points, the size of the green clusters made them easy to identify and therefore avoid. Also, the plant's tall center stalk presented a silent "en garde" warning to all who approached at ground level.


Bull nettles, on the other hand, were totally without honor and offered scant warning to the uninitiated that their innocent appearing foliage possessed a poison as irritating as the tendrils of a jelly fish. When my Arkansas-born mother decided to harness the mule and plow a quarter acre of land for a vegetable garden she was totally unaware of the vindictive nature of the fuzzy, pale green plant. The plow pulled a nettle taut and then loosed it, allowing it to slap against her bare shins. The pain was intense and she let out a startled scream as she tried to figure out what had happened to cause her skin to feel like it was on fire. There was little to do for it except bathe it in cool water and wait for the pain to subside, which, in its own good time it eventually did.


Grass burrs were not nearly as painful as the bull nettles but they more than compensated for any short comings it might have had by tenacious reproductive tactics that even today assure them a place in the sun of any untended lawn or field in the area. The tiny burs hurt going in one's foot and their tiny fish-hook construction at the tip of each sticker insured that they would hurt even more when they were removed. Their ability to blend into the sandy soil gave them an unfair advantage. Any time a careless child stepped out doors without shoes they became vulnerable to attack from the ubiquitous little burr.

Sustaining a family of six on a farm here in the late 1940s required the combined labors of adults and children.

"Note: Thanks to Bill Reid for writing an article about yucca that started me reminiscing."
© Dorothy Hamm
"Words and Music" Column
- November 8, 2005 column
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