Here in California, it’s foxtail time. This grassy weed is everywhere outdoors – in the wilderness areas where we hike, yes, of course, but also alongside suburban sidewalks and coming up in cracks in city parking lots. They are in my backyard and front yard and side yards. I spend hours each week pulling them up by the roots and carefully discarding them in the green waste bin, because there is a tiny seed at the base of every single strand on every waving frond on every plant that will grow another foxtail plant next year. If you have a very small yard, with enough years of dedicated weeding, you can eliminate them from your yard. I have a large yard and I will never see the end of them.
Why are they a problem? They are so pretty! You can run the fronds through your fingers and they are so soft – as long as you stroke them from bottom to top. If you try to reverse the direction of your caress, you learn instantly why they are the most reviled weed in the west.
Every single strand is lined with nearly microscopic barbs that catch on anything they touch, from fur to collars, clothing to bare skin. When the barbs come in contact with anything, they propel the strand forward, pushing the sharp-tipped seed at the end forward – relentlessly forward. The barbs can be felt when the grass is green, but as the plants dry out in the late spring – like, right now – they get sharper and more defined, like a brand new metal nail file. So when your dog walks through the drying grass, they practically fly off the plant and attach themselves to his fur, where they relentlessly drive those seeds into his flesh.
Top four favorite places for foxtails to invade: between dog toes and in dog noses, ears, and eyes. But they don’t discriminate; they are just as happy to burrow into dog armpits, urethras, vaginas (when girl dogs squat to pee) – anywhere there is a bend or soft, sensitive flesh.
Foxtails have sent my adolescent dog Woody to the vet twice this WEEK! He managed to do something unique – new at least to me, the vets have seen it all before. He indiscriminately ate some grass and apparently managed to include some foxtail awns. I heard him making a Bill the Cat noise (“Ackk!”) and immediately thought he must have swallowed something he shouldn’t have, and off to the 24-hour vet clinic we went. The vet looked inside his mouth and said, “Yup, foxtails…I can see one sticking out of his tonsils!” Woody is a compliant fellow, but to make sure she got them all, the veterinarian had to knock him out and thoroughly inspect his throat. She found several in the area of his tonsils, and more jammed in his gums by his molars. Good heavens, Woody! You are not a herbivore!
Five days later, Woody suddenly sprouted a lump on his cheek, the size of a small egg. There wasn’t a nick or cut that might indicate that he ran into something. I looked inside his mouth and saw something that looked like a little pimple, which made me think “$%^&*@* foxtails!” again. Back to the vet for a little exploration of Woody’s cheek.
The classic sign of a foxtail – the sign you actually want to see when you suspect a foxtail – is a little wet hole in the dog’s flesh, perhaps one that’s oozing a bit. That’s where the vet starts the search, with a little local anesthetic and a long, skinny alligator forceps. The foxtail will sometimes create a little track in the dog’s flesh, that the vet will try to follow to its end and pull it out backwards with the forceps. That’s the best case scenario.
More often, it goes like it went with Woody’s cheek; a little pimple indicating where the foxtail seed may have entered his flesh, but no track to follow and no ooze indicating where the seed is causing an infection that can be lanced and cleaned. The vet lanced the spot, found nothing, and now we have to wait and see. Was the piece of awn or seed small enough for his body to break it down and the swelling will subside? Or is the awn big enough to resist a quick disintegration? Will it keep traveling and cause trouble elsewhere? I’ve heard horror stories of foxtails traveling into dogs’ hearts, lungs, brains – you name it. I’m telling you, I HATE THESE PLANTS!
If anyone needs me for the next few days, I’ll be outside, weeding. Or using a flamethrower. We’ll see.
* To all of you who don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, count your blessings. On the other hand, those of you who live in chigger country, or where your ticks are epidemic and carry Lyme or Rocky Mountain Fever, you got me there.