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City grapples with resilient weeds

Caspar News and Press Releases

City grapples with resilient weeds

April 17, 1999
Press Democrat Staff Writer

Gorse may sound like a harmless word Dr. Seuss invented, but the inhabitants of the tiny coastal community of Caspar know better.

The mere mention of gorse -- the name given a bush-like weed native to Scotland and Ireland -- inspires fear and black humor in this unincorporated area just south of Fort Bragg. The tall, spiny plant has overtaken miles of the Caspar area and the Jug Handle State Reserve park, which runs beside it.

Fire, bulldozers, herbicides -- everything man has flung at gorse has failed to stop the stubborn plant. Even so, locals continue their unending quest to eradicate it, maintaining a wry sense of humor and acknowledging that, if nothing else, it has helped unify a diverse town.

"Like most of us living in Caspar, gorse came from far away," Caspar resident Michael Potts wrote in a column for a local paper. "Gorse is here; it's wildly successful ... why not celebrate it?"

With that in mind, Potts helped organize the first annual Caspar Gorse Festival last October, a weekend celebration of art, music and dance. While admitting "we are pretty goony'' about gorse, Potts said the residents of Caspar have a lot in common with their nemesis -- they are thorny, stubborn and resilient.

Stories differ on how gorse came to Northern California and Oregon just over a century ago, but there is no doubt somebody brought it from Scotland or Ireland, where it is held in check by poor soil and harsh weather.

Like many others who came to the New World, gorse flourished.

"What we've learned here," said Potts, "is it's not OK to go get any given plant and plant it. Gorse is a big object lesson in not planting plants that you can't control."

After decades of battling the plant, locals now happily swap recipes for gorse wine. The Caspar Web site offers one concoction provided by attorney James Jackson. The end product has a fruity taste, according to those who have dared to drink it.

"Here is an idea that could be the end of gorse," the Web site declares about Jackson's recipe. "If this turns out to be tasty or good for you or trendy, we have it made. Kiss gorse goodbye!''

But mixed with the town banter is the grave understanding that the invading plant is a major fire hazard that requires constant, old-fashioned work to keep at bay.

In March, Potts led an all-day gorse grubbing workshop, directing 16 volunteers one Saturday to pull the plants. In all, the group cleared one acre, he said. Spring is the optimal time to weed out gorse because the ground is wet and soft and the plant can be pulled out of the ground entirely, roots and all.

Nonetheless, Potts likened the experience to going to war. Gorse can grow as tall as 14 feet and its thorns can make the work particularly unpleasant, even when armed with heavy gloves and a helmet.

"You have to go out there and rip the enemy right out of the ground," Potts said. "They do not take kindly to being grubbed when they are big. They fight back."

The problem is the plant's roots can stretch deep into the soil and its voluminous, minuscule black seeds can last 30 years. Heavy equipment brought in to do the job often leaves covered in seeds and requires a thorough washing to avoid inadvertently transplanting the weed.

A drive by Caspar on Highway 1 reveals fields ablaze with gorse and its yellow blossoms, now in full bloom.

"It's sort of an evil bush because it looks pretty from a distance," said Pat Ackley, a Caspar community official. "But you get up on it real close and it has spines, and ticks like to live in it."

During the summer, gorse's leaves fall off, collect in the underbrush and dry out, making a plant known to be especially oily more susceptible to catching fire.

"To a firefighter and to people living around here it is a horror story," said Dale Coon, a fire captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection based in Fort Bragg.

A fire erupted in Caspar's gorse on April 15, 1987, sending black smoke and flames 30 feet into the air and threatening several homes before it could be extinguished. Jerry Juhl and his wife, who moved into their home two weeks earlier, nearly lost their house that day, but firefighters and a helicopter dropping 500-gallon loads of water prevented disaster.

The blaze scorched the Juhls' yard and the gorse above ground. An underground network of roots, however, spurred the plant's return.

"That day, gorse-eradication became an ongoing obsession for us. We grub it out, we cut it down, we wait for it to return," Juhl recounted.

Juhl's preoccupation is typical of town residents. The Caspar community's Web site is loaded with information about gorse and how to stop it.

At Jug Handle State Reserve, Louisa Morris is about to embark on an in-depth, one-year study of different gorse eradication techniques. Gorse has crowded out the native grass on the coastal bluffs near Caspar, Morris said.

"I'd say state parks have been waging a war against this plant since the early 1970s," Morris said. "The problem is you have to have an effective removal campaign for 30 straight years."

In the past, parks officials even released tiny bugs into gorse, hoping they would devour the plant.

Caspar is not alone in its affliction. Gorse has overrun Bandon, Ore., and is blamed as the main reason the coastal town just north of the California border burned to the ground in 1936.

In Hawaii, federal officials recently endorsed a plan to employ a fungus to eat away at gorse, which has overtaken 35,000 acres.

While gorse doesn't spread as quickly as some other plants, such as cape ivy, it is known to be particularly tenacious.

How Caspar residents, who number close to 500, have responded to gorse shows the village's tremendous community spirit, according to Ackley, who relocated to Caspar from Iowa in November.

"People talk about the Caspar state of mind," Ackley said. "We don't look at things as evil and bad. We would not like gorse to be here, granted, but it's here. So, OK, we'll do the best we can. Don't cry in your beer -- make gorse wine."

copyright Press Democrat, published 17 April 1999

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