Wednesday, Mar 26 2014 06:00 AM

The Season of Foxtail has arrived... dang it

Related Photos

The late afternoon sunlight illuminates the seed heads of foxtails growing next to Valley Boulevard. Photo by Jon Hammond

The late afternoon sunlight illuminates the seed heads of foxtails growing next to Valley Boulevard. Photo by Jon Hammond

Foxtails growing along a concrete curb. Photo by Jon Hammond

Foxtail dries to a bleached out straw color after a season in the sun. Photo by Jon Hammond

Even with as little rain as we've had this winter, there is still an upcoming chore facing many property owners throughout the Tehachapi Mountains: mowing the foxtail (Hordeum leporinum). This introduced grass is also known as mouse barley, wild barley, farmer's foxtail and wall barley, and some other nicknames that are not printable in a family newspaper. It is annual weed, native to the Mediterranean, and naturalized in many different parts of the world.

Foxtail is so widespread that it is hard to imagine a time when there wasn't any in Kern County, but it was unknown to the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) people. In fact, most of the assorted stickers, burs and various unpleasant weeds that we have now are not native but were brought in by Europeans and Americans. Other weeds are sometimes referred to as "foxtails," but in this column I'm specifically referring to just H. leporinum.

A major source of weed introductions was livestock, which contained viable seeds stuck in their hair or wool. As early as the Mission Period in California, sheep, cattle, goats and horses were imported from other areas and unintentionally brought hitchhikers like foxtail with them. Foxtail makes good forage in winter, when it is still green, but it quickly dries out and then has little nutritional value.

Foxtail germinates with the very first rains of autumn, starts growing, and then will quickly head out, produce seed and dry up in spring. The seeds stalks can grow up to a couple of feet tall during wet years or where there's water available, but if you mow them off when there is still a little moisture around, they'll keep growing and making seeds on ever shorter stalks. I've mowed them down repeatedly and by the third or fourth time, their seed stalks are practically at the ground level -- still determinedly making the seed dispersal structures that make this plant so unpopular.

It is this seed dispersal mechanism that causes problems for people and domestic animals, especially dogs. Each seed is attached to a slender, bristle-like structure called an awn. These have tiny barbs pointed in one direction so that when the tip of the foxtail seed gets into a sock or animal's fur, it will continue to move in only one direction: further in. Some kids (okay, yes, I was one of them) place a dried foxtail awn on their outstretched tongue, pointed inward, and though they try to hold still, almost by magic the foxtail keeps migrating towards their open mouth. Of course this isn't advisable or a good idea, but when did that ever give boys much pause? It is a chilling illustration of these barbed awns are able to penetrate into fur or skin. You should wear high boots when hiking through foxtails, or your socks can be rendered practically unsalvageable with foxtail awns -- I have thrown away otherwise good socks that were riddled with foxtail heads.

Foxtails can cause dogs incredible problems by getting into their ears, eyes and skin, and occasionally even lead to death, though more typically just extreme discomfort. When a foxtail gest in a dog's nose, it will usually get softened by moisture and the dogs are able to sneeze it out, though the dog is temporarily miserable and they sneeze like mad for as long as an hour or two. A bigger concern is when foxtails enter their ears, because there is no sneeze mechanism to remove them, and they can even lead to a punctured eardrum and hearing loss. This frequently necessitates a trip to the vet to remove the foxtail. Foxtails often lodge in the soft skin between dog's toes, especially breeds like spaniels, and can cause havoc there too. If dog owners had their say, foxtails would be extinct.

For all their abilities to persist and thrive where not wanted, foxtails have little resistance to burning and their seeds are very vulnerable to heat. After several years of studying the response of grasslands to intentional burning regimes in California, researchers determined that foxtail was the annual grass most sensitive to burning. When a grassland was comprised of up to 90 percent foxtail before a fire, it was found to be reduced to only 5 percent in the year after the fire, and it stayed very low for up to three years without additional burning or other intervention.

Tehachapi residents have already started firing up their weed trimmers and mowers to launch the counterattack on foxtail for this year -- good luck to all!

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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