Weeds go to war

An early summer stroll through Montana’s woods and fields sounds idyllic, but listen carefully and you may hear the echoes of battles fought nearly three quarters of a century ago.

Agriculture’s “War on Weeds” is a mere skirmish compared to the weeds that went to war for the Allies during World War II.

Fields that have not been intensively cultivated in recent decades often still bristle with stiff, dried stalks of henbane. Milkweed pods, currently much valued as the nursery of Monarch butterflies, saved the lives of soldiers at sea, and can be found along roadsides and fencelines. Hemp -- despite its close kinship with marijuana, provided cordage and other textiles in a time of critical shortages. The occasional, surprising appearance of a bright blue flax plant which has escaped fields in which it is raised commercially, is a reminder of WWII troops parachuting out of stricken aircraft and townspeople fighting fires started by incendiary bombs.

Even the much maligned dandelion, reputed to have been brought to America by the Pilgrims, had a role to play.

Henbane and hemp were both considered war materials, and both were deliberately cultivated in parts of Montana.

The history of henbane goes back to ancient times. The name is appropriate, as it is poisonous to poultry, but the more I learned about it, the more I suspected it should be renamed “omnibane.”

Pliny the Elder (A Roman naturalist who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD) called henbane “offensive to the understanding.” In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare refers to the henbane drug as a “leprous distilment.”

The military issued it to troops before the D-Day invasion, believing it to relieve the symptoms of airsickness. It did, but in some cases, it relieved the symptoms by sending men to sleep so soundly that one soldier, recalling the invasion, told how his unit had to march off without him. Others told of symptoms verging on hallucinations, of mouths so dry they couldn’t speak. After D-Day, these reports were investigated, confirmed and it was concluded that -- as it did relieve symptoms of airsickness -- it would be issued before all such invasions.

According to a retired colonel with combat experience, airborne paratroopers were crowded into slow propeller driven planes. Air quality was less than lovely. As four or five succumbed to airsickness, air quality went from bad to worse. Pretty soon the whole planeload was airsick. The troops had nothing inside to provide energy -- either physical or mental, leaving a bunch of paratroopers unprepared for battle. Instead, take a chance on incapacitating one or two with henbane to be sure the rest are ready.

Hemp received good reviews from the War Department. As a variety of marijuana, it had been outlawed, but was re-legalized during the war to meet the need for rope and sacking. One history of the war noted that -- although more than 350,000 acres of hemp were cultivated, there was no increase in the use of marijuana during that time period. This may be because hemp doesn’t contain sufficient of the active ingredient of its pernicious cousin to make it sought after -- a disappointing discovery to some adventurous young Montanans a couple of decades after the war. An “unnamed source” told of a stealthy raid on the fields of North Dakota where it was reputed to grow wild. Returning with a trunkful, they carefully dried it and discovered to their chagrin that they might as well have returned with a trunkful of hay.

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The seedpods of the kapok tree, in Indonesia, had long provided fluffy strands that were used for life jackets. The war in the Pacific cut off this supply, but similar fluffy strands in milkweed pods provided the same buoyancy, being -- according to one source -- six times as buoyant as cork.

Unfortunately, milkweed was not a cultivated crop in this country, so the collection of the pods from roadsides and fencerows became another wartime chore for children. The military needed two million pounds of the floss to fill a little over one million life jackets.

Seeds of the milkweed plant were attached to the floss, which would be carried away by the wind. Some small children confused these “seed parachutes” with the manufacture of actual parachutes, but that credit properly goes to flax: It’s tough fibers were used in making parachute harness and casing for fire hoses.

As for the poor, despised dandelion, it “liberated” scarce coffee supplies for shipment overseas to the troops, by providing folks on the home front with a “coffee-like” drink from its dried and ground roots.

Perhaps, like the 65,000 immigrants who served in the armed forces during WWII, it recalled its arrival on the Mayflower: It never forgot its roots.

Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area. 

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