It could have been a scene straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie. A young mom plants some herbs in her Brandon back yard, some flowering shrubs that promise an abundance of color in a few months' time. A little patience, she thinks with a smile, and she'll soon have fresh spices for the kitchen and blooms for the soul. Cue the Jaws theme.
Snaking up from the ground, from tubers that can grow the size of a person's head, cat's claw vines curl toward the rosemary, lemongrass and crape myrtles. Tender stems (and trees and chain-link fences) are no match for this weed's sharp little claws and woody vines that know only one embrace: choke to kill.
"It was maddening," says Kelly Schubert, who finally gave up her battle with the relentless weed by moving 10 years ago. "We couldn't keep it beaten down. Roundup didn't work. It just tangled up the Weed Eater. We tried weed-block fabric, overlapped, and it still came through, weaving through the layers."
The cat's claw popped up everywhere and killed everything. To this day, she says, she and her husband, Glen, live in fear of planting vines in anything but containers.
"If I say I'm going to put in a vine, my husband turns funny colors," Kelly says. "We both still have posttraumatic stress syndrome. He lost so many Weed Eaters."
Not all weed experiences are as harrowing as Kelly's. Some of us love our weeds — well, some of them.
I've been thinking a lot about weeds since returning from a two-week vacation a few days ago. I left my husband at home with lots of pre-emptive nagging about watering the plants, but I was pretty sure there would be casualties. September is not a good time to travel for gardeners without irrigation systems.
To my utter shock, my garden went jungle in my absence. The vinca minor ground cover had climbed up into a penta that had doubled in size. The plumbagos were doing a Sherman's march to the swing and the Mexican sage had swallowed the birdbath.
Alas, the weeds were just as full of vim. The little white flowers of Spanish needle waved merrily from high above the thryallis and torpedo grass shot like rockets through my slow-walking irises.
"I made sure everything got watered," Ben said, a little miffed, when I complained. "I don't do weeds."
It didn't take me long to learn that my husband had lots of help — two weeks of almost nonstop rain. And that I'm not the only gardener suddenly overwhelmed by weeds.
"I'm gonna get to them really soon," said Janna Begole, whose Citrus Park garden is currently off-limits to visitors. "Maybe today. Or maybe when it cools off just a little,"
I asked gardeners on our Facebook page, Diggin Florida Dirt, about their weeds. Are there some they love? Others they love to hate? Be warned: Some of these, like Kelly's cat's claw, Macfadyena unguis-cati, are considered exotic, invasive species. They can be beautiful — Kelly says cat's claw has brilliant yellow flowers and was once sold at a popular local nursery — but introducing them is akin to spreading a nasty virus. Or lice. Before you allow any a spot in your garden, visit the University of Florida's invasive plant list, plants.ifas.ufl.edu/node/21, so you don't unleash a monster.
Vicki Parsons of Brandon likes basket grass and spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis. A Florida native with long, grass-like leaves, spiderwort flowers in the spring, producing dainty, deep-blue blooms with bright yellow stamens. Very pretty.
"I just wish basket grass grew year-round!" Vicki says, noting it dies back in the winter.
Oplismenus hirtellus is a leafy ground cover that does well under her oaks, where it's hard to grow turf, she says. It handles traffic well, and it's easy to discipline when it wanders too far.
Wilcox Nursery in Largo lists basket grass as a Florida native that it sometimes stocks.
If you don't love those white-streaked leaves, the University of Florida recommends spraying it with Halts, a weed preventative, a few times a year. It doesn't kill the plant, only the germinating seeds, so it's all about timing.
There were lots of love votes for milkweed, the larval food of monarch butterflies.
"Some people hate it but I wouldn't be without it," says Susan Gillespie, a butterfly lover in Riverview. "It brings all those monarchs to the yard."
Milkweed gets 3 to 4 feet tall and produces orange and yellow blooms. Monarch caterpillars will devour the leaves, and while that doesn't hurt the plant, it does make it a good candidate for tucking behind other shrubs. It grows easily from seed, and no one seems to mind that it pops up wherever it wants.
Weeds with no redeeming qualities? Torpedo grass tops the list. The tall, grassy blades shoot up from a subterranean runner with an evil-looking rocket-shaped "nose" — the better to burrow through the ground. UF's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants calls Panicum repens "one of the most serious weeds in Florida," which makes me feel a little better about my infested, street-facing plumbago bed.
It was introduced in the United States for grazing cattle and goats, which may be a good reason to invest in a small herd. They do like it. Otherwise, about the only way for the average homeowner to get rid of it is to pull up the runners. (My personal record was 59 inches long. Can you beat that?)
Stink vine, Paederia foetida, also known as skunk vine, came in a close second. It was introduced as far south as Hernando County in the late 1800s as a potential fiber crop, but is now considered an invasive species, according to UF's invasive plants website.
It comes by its name honestly; when the leaves are disturbed, they release smelly sulfur compounds, the website says. UF suggests spraying Roundup in the spring and summer to help keep it under control.
Hopefully, you don't have any of the top most-despised weeds, especially the worst of the worst, the invasive species. If you do, you might try the Kelly method and just pack and move. Be warned: She did inherit some new problems.
"I've got sand now — and nematodes," she says. "Probably in every picture I take in my garden, there's torpedo grass. And I've seen skunk vine."
But she says she can deal with those.
"If I had cat's claw, I would run away again."