Matrimony Vine: a noxious weed for better or for worse!

This week I’m going to get into the weeds, so to speak, and shine an interesting light on a very important topic: noxious weeds. 

For starters, let us define…

What is a noxious weed? 

Practically speaking, a noxious weed is a non-native plant species that is introduced into an area and which eventually, overcrowds or overtakes the native plants growing there. This overcrowding and overtaking of our native plant communities by species that are not meant to be here is destructive to our wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. It’s also economically damaging, affecting croplands and rangelands used for agriculture, and significantly increasing risks from wildfires and erosion to our watersheds. 

In Butte proper and Silver Bow County, ranging from our reclaimed upland Superfund caps to the restored stream bottoms of Silver Bow Creek, we have many hundreds of acres of reclaimed and restored land. These lands were seeded and planted with very specific mixes of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. The invasive spread of noxious weeds threatens the integrity of these important landscapes too. 

So, unless you’re going to use it as the name of your college garage band (or unless you’re matrimony vine, as I’ll explain further below), noxious weeds are not good for much of anything other than lowering property values, destroying native plant communities or upsetting a Superfund cleanup. You might even get a citation from the local weed department for not keeping the darned things sprayed and in check. 

That’s right – it’s illegal to allow any weed on the Montana Noxious Weed list to grow on your property. This list includes infamous plants we’ve likely all heard of, like spotted knapweed, leafy spurge and Canada thistle. But it also includes a lot of other plants that most people wouldn’t know. You can find the list of naughty plants here: http://msuinvasiveplants.org/noxioussub.html

Now here’s where the topic gets locally interesting…

Did you know that Butte has its own unique noxious weeds? 

In addition to the plants on Montana’s Noxious Weed List, Butte-Silver Bow has two additional species it has infamously named that are unique: Baby’s breath (Gysophilia paniculata), which I won’t talk about this time, and my absolute favorite weed, Matrimony vine (Lycium barbarum). 

Matrimony vine – so named because once you have it growing, “you’re married to it” – is a sprawling, thorny bush that grows in Butte where most other plants cannot. I’ve seen it growing on mine dumps, in tailings, on bedrock outcrops, on steep, bone-dry hillsides and along disturbed roadways or streambanks. While most noxious weeds detract from wildlife habitat, this plant is actually a favorite of local birds and pollinators and even small mammals, as it creates thickets of vegetation to hide in where nothing else can grow. 

It also is known to root through cracks in the foundations of homes and buildings and subsequently, can fill a room or basement, if left unchecked. This is why it’s a named noxious weed in Butte. With our uncommonly high number of century-plus old buildings, many of which are vacant, the plant can wreak havoc on unkempt property. (Personally, I think that poor property management on the landowner and not the fault of the poor plant.) 

Through its uniquely resourceful roots, the vine can take sunlight and nutrients from a part of the plant growing outside and send it to parts of the plant no one can see until it’s too late. It’s not unheard of for matrimony vine to fill rooms and basements of vacant buildings where it has quietly entered, unbeknownst to the landowner.    

Matrimony vine isn’t just plain tough. It’s beautiful, in its own, unassuming way. 

In addition to its arcing branches and narrow, pale-green leaves, the bush is covered with little, purple flowers, which about this time of year (August) are turning into the bright, red-orange fruits known as wolf berries or goji berries. Goji berries, in case you you’ve been living under a rock the past decade, are highly regarded as a health food for their “superfood” quantities of certain vitamins and antioxidants. 

In fact, the berries have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. And while it’s not documented, it is probably Butte’s Chinese population, reported to once be over 2,000 people in the early 1900s, who introduced Lycium barbarum to our environs when someone likely brought over a plant or some seeds for medicinal purposes. An obligatory word of caution though – I would not suggest picking and eating them, as the plant is in the nightshade family and may have toxic characteristics in its leaves and before ripe, its fruit. There’s also the unknown potential and quantity of heavy metals the plant might be taking up into its fruit, if it’s found growing on a site with contaminated soils.   

Tough as nails, yet beautiful. Providing food and refuge and considered useful, even tasty or healthful, depending on who you talk to, though some consider it noxious. Do I hear a nomination for Butte’s official plant? 

PHOTO CUTLINE: 

Lovely purple flowers and bright, red-orange fruit — goji berries — cover the branches of the Matrimony vine (Lycium barbarum), making it nothing short of beautiful this time of year. However, matrimony vine is a listed noxious weed in Butte-Silver Bow because the roots grow into foundation cracks of old buildings and can wreak havoc if left unchecked.