Sandspurs on sand

My Love Affair with the Sandspur

After decades of licking my fingers and pulling them out of my feet, I found a new way of looking at these prickly Florida natives.

After decades of cursing and pulling them out of my feet – and my dogs’ paws – I found myself appreciating the beauty and determination of the sandspur. Photo taken at Fort Clinch State Park, by Cathy Salustri.

I was a kid when I first discovered sandspurs, although I’m not sure if “discovery” is too shiny a word for what transpired shortly after we moved to Florida: I attempted a cartwheel and landed on my butt, which is not at all how I expected the cartwheel to go. I blew my landing not on the soft grass we had back in New York, but a spiky patch of briars that latched into my tender seven-year-old skin with a ferocious passion. 

With that first painful Florida lesson more than 40 years behind me (see what I did there?), I sometimes think of that moment as an allegory for Florida: You arrive here expecting things to be one way, and by the time you realize they’re not going the way you planned, Florida has inserted herself into your most tender bits and won’t let go. Think of us as a stealth state.

My relationship with the sandspur started that afternoon. For the most part, I’d wager it’s a textbook dysfunctional relationship:  Every time I let down my guard, BAM: I stepped on a sandspur. 

Walking back to my car at Fort De Soto, I hold my flip flops in my hand as I cross the hot blacktop to my car. Growing between the parking dividers, a patch of sandspur wait in the shadows. I step on them with one foot and then, before my brain can process what a bad decision my next move would be, I land on them with another. I have no choice but to sit down and pull 20-odd sandspurs out of my feet and then, of course, out of my hands. 

Working a part-time job as ground crew for a banner towing company, I find myself working in fields of sandspur, but these are no ordinary  sandspurs; these are sandspurs on steroids, and – worst of all – they look like a gorgeous field of yellow flowers. Inside each blossom, though, is a sandspur as big as my big toe, which I can say with some authority as I’ve had one pierce by big toe. Despite the 90º-plus heat and hours in the hot field, I wear socks and tennis shoes to work because I do not want these things in my body. I learn later that these are aptly named “puncture vine” (Tribulus cistoides) and are an invasive plant from Madagascar.

My dog, Calypso, mimics the behavior of the dog who came before her, Madison, when she steps on a sandspur: she stops and holds up the injured paw, waiting for me to remove it. As Calypso’s a long-haired dachshund who rolls on anything with unbridled joy, this happens a lot.

Calypso, rolling in something dead and, most likely, a sandspur or two. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

A few years ago, my friend and fellow Florida-phile, Nano Riley, pointed out that sandspurs were, at least, native plants. I tried not to care; they still hurt like hell when they pierced my feet. 

Floridian gardeners know the sandspur – technically, the Southern Sandbur (Cenchrus echinatus L.) – has a green stalk with a violet band where its stem has a leaf growing out. It’s a native Florida grass, and the spur part – the part we’ve all had stuck in our foot at least 237 times – is actually a seed head; it’s part of the flower.

That means that when you pick the sandspur out of your foot and throw it into the grass, you’re planting a new crop of sandspur. It’s ingenious that way, if you think about it. It propagates by making you want to defend yourself against it.

You can’t mow it away – that simply disperses the seeds and, because it’s native to Florida, it doesn’t die in our climate easily. The University of Florida’s Extension Service suggests glyphosate, which may or may not cause cancer, liver, and/or kidney damage. To get rid of the sandspur, you have to yank it out by its roots and throw the whole plant in the garbage – not a landscape pile where the seeds can disperse, because, as I mentioned, that results in a Sisyphean-like situation whereby those seeds disperse, germinate, and then you find yourself pulling even more sand spurs out of the earth next year.

This fall, though, I found a new appreciation for the prickly Florida friend. While on an extended camping trip in September, we spent a few days at Fort Clinch State Park, at the northernmost border of the state. That meant that the weather changed on cue with the fall equinox (this simply does not happen in the southern two-thirds of Florida, or, if it does, it’s an anomaly.)

People love to say we don’t have seasons in Florida, and while I won’t explain, with great annoyance, why this isn’t true, I will say this much: We do. The color changes are far more subtle in the fall, because death comes more gently in Florida – we don’t have a massive dormancy of trees. Nevertheless, the colors do change, and it was on the actual fall equinox, when I’d climbed out of the camper in a bathing suit and promptly climbed back in to change into a sweatshirt, that I sat on the sand, near the dunes, shortly after sunrise and stared at a cluster of sand spur.

While I’ve spent more time than I’d like picking sandspurs out of feet and paws, I hadn’t, until fall equinox, spent much time thing about them. On this morning, I did.

They’re beautiful.

Meditation on a sandspur. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

While the stalks seemed to be dying, the burs themselves had taken on a reddish-violet color, and, set against the sea oats and sunrise, they almost seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I sat there for a long while, thinking about all the times I’d cursed this grass, all the times I’d yanked the plant out by its root, and all the times I’d thought of it as nothing but annoyance.

And then I thought of our bike ride, the day before, where we’d happened upon a field of beggar tick, a “weed” that’s popped up in our landscape with cheerful persistency. Much like the sandspur, I would yank these out by the roots. My husband would take a more lethal approach with an herbicide. We stopped our bikes and stared at the quietly lovely field of wildflowers for a long moment. Finally, he said what I was thinking:

“I guess we should probably stop killing those in our yard.”

I read somewhere that a rose is a weed if it shows up in a vegetable garden, and that thought came to mind as I stared at this field of “weeds.” Photo by Cathy Salustri.

How much time, I wondered the next morning at the beach, had I spent trying to yank something out by its roots and destroy it, simply because I couldn’t see its beauty? I felt oddly violent and somehow xenophobic, except towards plants, and sad.

And so we came back home and stopped killing the wildflowers in our landscape (I no longer call them weeds, because it’s clearly a subjective term). We don’t have any sandspur in our yard, but I wouldn’t kill them, either. We now have more honeybees and birds, and – while we don’t have enough property to have a field of them like we saw at Fort Clinch – the beggar ticks no longer look like scraggly weeds, but like a beautiful part of our landscape.

The trees and grasses and plants aren’t there for my own private agenda, and I don’t get to decide what gets to live and what must die. They have their own agenda – survival – and I have no right, I’ve realized, to impose my will on theirs.

They also have their own brand of beauty.

I just needed to take the time to truly see it.

When I first took this photo, I focused on the bee, not the pretty flower I once called a weed. Photo by Cathy Salustri.