The Evolving Battle of Weed Control

A generation ago a farmer battled weeds with a hoe and a cultivator. Now chemical weed killers have been developed. There are many different kinds of sprays that kill weeds without harming useful plants.

In addition, scientists are working on methods for biological control. That is, they are hunting for animal enemies of troublesome weeds. This kind of weed control was tried in North America for the first time in 1945.

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Saint John's wort had emigrated to Pennsylvania when George Washington was president. A pleasant-looking plant with bright yellow flowers, it was for a long time scarcely noticed. Then, after a century of traveling westward, it turned up in California. Ranchers near the Klamath River began to see more and more bright yellow flowers, and they didn't like what they saw.

The roots of the weed were crowding out valuable forage (feed) plants. Even worse, cattle and sheep became sick when they fed on this weed. By 1940 Klamath weed, as it was nick-named, had taken over vast areas of rangeland. Despairing ranchers appealed to scientists at the University of California for help. How could a weed that covered so much territory be dislodged?

The answer lay in a tiny, shiny beetle that feeds on the leaves of the plant in its original home in France. Hundreds of the beetles were released on the rangelands. After a short time, they became established there. They didn't eat all the Klamath weed, but they kept the plant so much in check that the range grasses had a chance to grow again.