They say you reap what you sow, and today, I am reaping acres of nightshade, an extraordinarily toxic plant. The new cabernet block is carpeted in the stuff, a consequence of our disturbing the ground at the time of planting. I bend to the task in the hot afternoon sun, along with a crew of five, and we barely progress. The nightshade resists our efforts at hand weeding, with tenacious roots gripping deep into the gravelly soil underlying the woody layer of mulch.
Flies have moved in as well, buzzing in for a drink of our sweat, getting in our eyes, adding an annoyance factor. I position the truck close by, open all the doors and blast classic rock and roll anthems, lifting our mood. Each of us frees a vine at a time from the nightshade’s chokehold, and bit by bit we gain ground. But it is extremely time consuming and I am resigning myself to the fact that this will be a major undertaking at a huge expense.
The only way for me to eradicate these unwanted guests is to remove them by hand, and there are tens of thousands of them. They are already well established, and in a matter of weeks they will get woody and put out more seeds, perpetuating the issue far into the future. With our thick mulch, we cannot cultivate, as the plants will break off at the roots and simply regrow. Anyone else would spray herbicide and be done with it in a few hours, but this is not the Cloudburst way.
Nightshade is a perennial shrub with a woody stem, big herbaceous leaves, and a five petaled purple flower with a fused yellow calyx in the characteristic shape of a tube. A member of the Solanaceae family, close relative of the tomato, potato, belladonna, datura, it is can be an extremely poisonous plant. It puts out a generous crop of green berries, which ripen to a dark black, each filled with about 30 highly viable seeds. Just a little bit of its toxic alkaloid is all that’s needed to cause death...
I get a noseful of its distinctive deadly odor and notice my thoughts are going off on a sort of dark strange delirium. I’m in the poppy field, it's The Wizard of Aus, and my limbs are feeling heavy and I’m lightheaded. A bit of juice has splashed on my bare arm, so I tromp off to the shade for my water, wondering if the juice itself has caused this, or my hours in the sun, or my soaring imagination.
We will take pains to remove every last bit of nightshade, scouring every square meter of the planting, until it is gone. It’s a huge undertaking and I’m steeling myself to the need to remain vigilant for years going forward. There’s no question in my mind that this is going to be an extraordinary block. The Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted here just two months ago is thriving. Perhaps 97 percent has taken, an astonishing and promising result. Clearly the nightshade likes the spot as well--who wouldn't? North facing, bordering a stream, nestled in the bush-- it's just a lovely spot.
I gobble water, splash some on my filthy arms, return to the field and bend to the task anew. The sun is drooping through scattered clouds and the light slants long. A kookaburra sets up a chuckle in the marris and is answered by a mate on the other side. I can laugh too. There’s always something to attend to in the vineyard, and there always will be.