The second weekend of January -- after a December ice storm, several snows, and freezing temperatures had covered the ground with a thick layer of solid ice -- the temperature shot up into the 40s and 50s. That mild weekend, our family traded the Brrrrr of winter for another kind of burr.
It started when the electric dog fence went down. We share this “fence” – really just a wire run through the woods – with our neighbors; both of our dogs roam freely within its confines, and the control box is located in the neighbors’ garage. When these neighbors informed us that there was a break in the wire somewhere, we knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix since the wire was buried under about an inch of ice.
If the temperatures were warmer, the days longer, the walking conditions less treacherous, and I didn’t have four young children, I could just walk our dog, Gracie, several times a day. Since that’s not always possible, we have a 40-foot dog tie-out tethered to a pipe in our yard, which allows Gracie some roaming freedom but prevents her from killing the UPS man. This tie-out was the one thing we forgot to bring inside before winter set in. Like the electric fence, it was buried under ice so thick that numerous pots of boiling water, me with a crowbar, and my husband with a sledgehammer couldn’t dislodge it.
So, we faked it. We strapped on Gracie’s shock collar and let her out each morning, praying that she wouldn’t notice that the fence was down. It worked…until it didn’t.
I discovered that the jig was up while driving home from preschool drop-off on Friday morning. Up ahead I spotted a neighbor, Heidi, walking her dog. A familiar-looking dog trotted beside them, off leash…off leash, because that dog was Gracie! I pulled up alongside, stopped our minivan, and tried to entice Gracie to hop in. Here’s what she heard: “Gracie, stop frolicking with this puppy, and jump into this huge, noisy moving thing that makes you vomit.” Not surprisingly, she didn’t buy it. Heidi tried to help by jogging her dog back inside, at which point Gracie took one look at me and ran off into the woods.
There was nothing to do but wait and hope she’d find her way home. When she scratched at our porch door an hour later, her ears were covered with burrs.
Burrs -- seeds or dry fruits that have hooks or teeth, allowing them to stick to fur or clothing -- have two purposes: they repel some herbivores, and they’re the means of seed dispersal for burr-bearing plants. They’re also familiar local annoyances to anyone with kids or pets.
That particular day, Gracie was doing the reproduction legwork for a common burdock plant (genus Arctium). Burdock is a biennial found throughout North America; it can grow to be six feet tall and has large heart-shaped leaves and purple flowers that bloom from June through October. These flowers sit atop a prickly ball about 0.5 inches in diameter, and it’s these prickly balls that become the “burr” of burdock when the plant goes to seed. Each ball is composed of about 40 hooked barbs so tenacious that they were supposedly the inspiration for Velcro.
It was annoying to pick burdock barbs off of Gracie’s ears. It was even more annoying when she broke through the fence the next day (that’s right; we didn’t learn and neither did she) and returned covered in the burrs of the Hackelia virginiana plant, commonly known as “beggar’s lice.” These burrs are tiny – about half a centimeter long – and vaguely tear-shaped. Despite their name, they’re more reminiscent of deer ticks than lice, and almost as difficult to extract from a curly-haired dog. I’m still finding them on Gracie.
After two consecutive days of Gracie’s burr run-ins, the thawing temperatures melted the ice enough for our neighbors to locate and repair the break in the dog fence. It was Sunday, and we assumed it would be a day of rest from runaway dogs and assorted burrs.
Sunday afternoon, my daughters went to a friend’s house to play. Because of the warmer weather, the children – eight in all – ended up outside. Also running around outside: a flock of chickens, which my two-year-old delighted in terrorizing. “Chickens! Stand STILL!” she ordered while chasing them around the coop.
As she emerged from the far side of the coop, I noticed what looked like a decorative flower clip attached to her hair. Since I didn’t remember putting anything in her hair, I took a closer look. What appeared to be large, puffy petals were in fact a massive clump of burdock burrs stuck to the side of my daughter’s head.
Turns out it’s a lot harder to pick burrs from a two-year-old than from a dog. A more patient mother might have used spray-on conditioner, olive oil, peanut butter – all remedies suggested to me by more patient mothers after the fact. I plucked out burr barbs for roughly 30 seconds before giving up and grabbing my hair-cutting shears.
It was a prickly, sticky weekend. I don’t know why our family experienced three burr encounters in three days; perhaps it’s proof of the old adage that bad news always comes in threes. But now electric current again runs through the dog fence, my two-year-old sports a new pixie haircut, snow and colder temperatures have returned, and all’s right with the world.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.