On my walking this after Christmas morning, in between gusts of wind, I hear a strange sound. I stopped and realized a rattling sound came from my feet. Since it’s early winter I wasn’t worried about rattlesnakes (too much!). I looked down, and realized I was standing in a patch of locoweed seed pods.
The papery pods had dried to a tough skin, encasing seeds which were bouncing around inside like beads in a baby’s rattle. They almost sounded like a lazy rattlesnake who wasn’t worked up enough to buzz.
Locoweed goes by lots of names – vetch, milkvetch, crazy weed. Some species contain an alkyloid compound which causes neurological issues such as lethargy, depressed appetite or sudden bouts of “craziness,” hence the name. Scientists have long thought the plant itself produced the toxin, but researchers have recently discovered an associated fungus which is actually the bad guy in the picture.
It’ll be interesting to see if scientists can develop a form of locoweed that doesn’t contain the poison, or if they can figure out how to keep the plant free from its associated toxic fungus. Once established on a range, locoweed is really difficult to eradicate, so some form of mitigating the issues associated with the plant would be a boon for land managers across the west.