The fall in South Carolina is almost perfect: the air breathes fresher; no longer like it’s been pre-circulated in a massive celestial clothes dryer with perpetually damp towels. The leaves slowly change colors, the pinecones drop, and you might even think about building a fire in the fireplace. Perhaps a walk on the beach is in order, but you’ll want to stay away from the grasses by the walkways or the dunes. Or the sidewalks, for that matter. And you’ll want to keep your shoes on and wear thick, protective knee-socks, which could make you a target for hilarious posts on Instagram by strangers.
Maybe you should just stay inside.
It’s sandbur season. For the 12 scientists reading this column, it’s the genus “Cenchrus;” a widespread species of plants in the grass family. In the fall, these grasses produce clusters of spiny burs which detach from the plant and cling to your pants, shoes, or pets and invade your home. I’ve done some extensive research for about thirty seconds on the internet, and learned that Cenchrus thrives in dunes and on roadsides in sandy, arid soils, waste areas, and other “disturbed” habitats.
Evidently, I live in the hub of an extremely disturbed habitat. I walk my dogs routinely in the disturbed habitat of my neighborhood, and they bring in record numbers of these sharp, tenacious burs, which they nibble off their legs and scatter throughout our home. It’s disturbing.
I remember the unexpected “ouch” of stepping on a Lego brick or a Barbie shoe when my children were young. But this is a 1—maybe a 2 at the most—on the pain scale. The pain scale, you will recall, is the patient assessment tool used at the emergency room when you have sustained a serious injury and the triage nurse asks you to describe your pain on a scale of 1 to 10—and you moan “uhhhh” indecisively while your spouse makes up a number.
With the Lego brick or a Barbie shoe, you can simply pick up your foot and the pain is gone. Also, you have some control over restoring the temporarily disturbed home environment your offspring have created; you can prohibit use of the offending toy until the clean-up process is guaranteed and be free once more to perambulate barefoot.
But let us return to the science of pain. The South Carolina sand bur is at least a 5 on the scale, because first you have to hop to a safe place to remove the bur. Before hopping, visually inspect the surrounding area; tragically, the hopping foot frequently lands squarely on a second bur. Extract the bur by wincingly grabbing it between your thumb and forefinger, all the while shouting in the language your Dad used when he slammed his hand in the station wagon door. This effectively relocates the pain from your foot to your fingers. Even after dislodging the bur, you will leave lingering spines in your foot, so you’ll be walking in a pain range of 1-3 for an indeterminate amount of time.
I have placed a photo of Cenchrus on my website to help you avoid this nuisance grass by remaining indoors and keeping your shoes on 24/7 until the first frost. I have also downloaded a helpful fact sheet from the USDA that you can wad up to scrape the sandburs off your insteps.
Grasses in the Cenchrus family do have a upside, stabilizing our dunes with their spreading root systems and reducing coastal erosion. I nominate it for our official state grass, right up there next to our beloved state flower the Yellow Jessamine, whose blooms can cause severe allergic reactions when touched and be fatal if ingested.
The sandbur aptly says to tourists what we are all thinking but are not prickly enough to verbalize: Come and visit spectacular South Carolina! Just get out of here by fall
Janet Combs is a freelance writer living in Georgetown County. Contact her at www.janetfrickecombs.wordpress.com.