It’s spring over here in Australia, and with the yearly return of daisies, cicadas, cherry blossoms, those small annoying black bugs, and long clear sunny days, we have also had a return of a notorious weed; Paterson’s Curse.
Farmers around here indeed curse the stuff, but (and don’t tell anyone this) I secretly like Paterson’s Curse.
For me it’s a childhood memory. For years you could be sure spring had arrived when the countryside was decorated with paddocks of yellow canola and paddocks of purple Paterson’s Curse. Then a special bug was introduced that successfully managed to kill off the weed and leave our paddocks clear of the purple haze for many years.
This year however something special has happened. The dusky purple plague is creeping silently back over the hills.
So I thought it would be a good time to tell the story of Paterson’s Curse, in this enchanted spring, before perhaps it is finally killed off for good.
Bear in mind that no one knows for sure how Paterson’s Curse was originally introduced to our paddocks, I’m simply using some of the facts to weave this story that in the end is no more than purple gossamer.
Shall we begin?
Once upon a time, in England, that foggy, dreary land, lived William and Jane Paterson and their children, happy in their lush green pastures. Then, one especially grey and foggy day, Mr Paterson made a decision that was to change their lives forever. He did the unthinkable. He decided to move to Australia.
No one was very happy about this, the children moaned and wept, Mrs Paterson went around in a black cloud, but Mr Paterson was determined. To Australia they would go.
Of all the reports Jane Paterson had heard of Australia the one consistent one was that it was a dry, brown, dusty land. This report struck Mrs Paterson to her heart, she loved beautiful things, could not live without them. And she was to be dragged to a desolate wilderness, by all accounts, where not one flower bloomed and no green grass grew in the shade by sluggish rivers. Mrs Paterson had not yet learnt that gold dusty sunshine could be as beautiful as green English growth.
Since it was to be so, Mrs Paterson kept a stiff upper lip and prepared accordingly. Among the Paterson’s luggage she carefully packed the seeds of all her favourite flowers, including a hardy purple flower that she had found by chance at a flower market. If this flower had a name, it had been forgotten long ago.
So came the Paterson’s to Australia. To Melbourne and then out to the farm Mr Paterson had purchased.
It was as dusty and as dry as Mrs Paterson had feared. The land seemed unyielding, and she wondered if anything would grow. The crops and cattle Mr Paterson had built his castles upon seemed to whither in the sun as they stood there looking at their first sight of their new home.
After the first shock the children started to enjoy their new found freedom in the sunshine. Warned against snakes they explored every inch of their new home and were lost in love for it forever.
Mr Paterson got acquainted with his neighbours and settled into the business of the farm. It was back breaking work but every evening when he came home covered in sweat and dust he glowed with satisfaction and joy. In the evening as he sat on the verandah with his pipe, he swore to Mrs Paterson that he could see the cattle and crops growing fat. Seeing his joy, Jane Paterson stifled her dissatisfaction and tried hard to keep her little home nice.
She had much to see to before she could attend to her garden, but she dreamed of the day when her clouds of flowers would soften the landscape. She had it all planned out for many months before Mr Paterson had time to dig out her flower beds.
Finally the soil was turned over, the seeds tucked in their beds and watered diligently and kindly.
By their first spring there Mrs Paterson had her garden and was happier than she ever thought she could be in a greenless land.
Many of the plants needed loving care and Mrs Paterson tended them like a mother. One flower however, the nameless purple one, grew so well that it soon exceeded it’s flower bed. The pretty purple flowers that had struggled with endless grey rain, thrived on its new diet of buckets of sunshine and as much water as Mrs Paterson could give it.
How she delighted over her purple flowers! She saw them in the morning when she woke, as she hung out her washing and as she and Mr Paterson sat on the verandah and watched their castle grow. The flowers bloomed in spring and lasted all summer long. Past the edge of the garden bed, past the fence and into the next paddock. It grew and grew all that summer until autumn winds blew it’s seeds away.
Through the long winter Mrs Paterson missed her purple cloud in her garden, but enjoyed the winter rains and discovered that Australia could become green as well. The green that covered the paddocks was in no where near as green as her England, but she did not notice because she had so become accustomed to the gold.
So passed the winter and spring came again. And with spring her purple flowers bloomed once more, only this time they bloomed throughout all the paddocks of their kingdom, adventurous seeds helped by friendly winds had overtaken Mr Paterson’s paddocks.
Jane Paterson thought she had never seen anything as beautiful as those purple paddocks, and even Mr Paterson had to admit it was pretty, but he said to her that pretty or not it would have to come out to make way for wheat. She knew he was right, so the campaign began against the purple flower. However the Patersons discovered that however easy it is to colour paddocks purple, it is a terrible job to make them green again.
Mr Paterson and his oldest sons worked in their paddocks tirelessly. But when Mr and Mrs Paterson sat on their verandah each evening they found that instead of watching cattle grow fat and green crops rising, they saw purple creeping across their paddocks instead. The few cattle they had ate the pretty flowers and many got sick and died from it, their number diminished every day. When they had their harvest the contaminated wheat did not sell well. Only the sheep didn’t seem to mind the purple plague.
At the end of that summer they sat together looking out on their kingdom and saw it crumbling.
“I am sorry,” said Jane Paterson, “that I ever brought that accursed plant here” the very words sounded futile in her ears.
“What is done is done,” said her husband reaching for her hand. “But we’re not licked yet, you’ll see.”
But they hadn’t a chance. There was little rain that winter, they stood at the edge of a drought. No one had a good crop in that summer, the golden and green paddocks that Mrs Paterson had learnt to appreciate faded into grey dust. And the curse continued to spread past their boundaries and into their neighbours.
All of them cursed the Patersons, the drought destroyed their crops through the years, yet the Paterson’s Curse seemed to be more bountiful than ever, overtaking much valuable land and killing much cattle. How bitterly they cursed it!
Jane and William Paterson watched the grass and other feed die, watched the cattle fade away, watched their crops fail. Their castle gone, all they could hope for was simply to survive and perhaps crawl back to Melbourne. All their hopes were gone.
In the midst of all the dead and dying they almost didn’t notice a miraculous thing. Although the cattle fared badly of their purple diet, the sheep did not! The grey brown backs of sheep moving amongst the purple flowers gave the Paterson’s and all their neighbours a lifeline that none had had courage or will to think possible.
Soon after, the drought broke. And the Patersons emerged, battered and bruised, but alive and full of spirit, ready to build their empire once again on the backs of their purple flower fed sheep and remaining cattle.
And in all the neighbouring farms again and again it was reported, the sheep had survived well on Paterson’s Curse. The purple cloud had filled bare paddocks and brought beauty and life to the land, just enough life for the farmers to bless day that saw Jane Paterson plant her purple salvation.
So William and Jane and their family lived, full of joy in their ever expanding kingdom.
William saw the paddocks he had dreamed of, green heads of wheat waving gently in the breeze, softening into gold each summer, cattle growing fatter and fatter each year and sheep, white backs gleaming in the sunlight.
And Jane found the beauty she longed for in gold and purple paddocks, and was happy watching her family grow in the sunshine. But never was Jane happier than when tending her garden, in which grew her curse and salvation till the day she died.
So that is my story of Paterson’s Curse.
In the end it was not as bad as it could have been.
The flower that had saved farmers from complete bankruptcy was given another name, Salvation Jane, and it continued to bloom for many seasons.
I have always found it to be very pretty, but I realise that in the end it really is more of a curse than a blessing. It overruns paddocks and is very hard to get rid of. Cattle and horses die from eating it. Even sheep will eventually die from it if they eat it continuously as the Paterson’s in my story may have found out had their drought dragged out for many more years.
While writing my story I realised just how devastating it would have been to watch your livelihood destroyed, and to see that a useless and destructive plant is growing cheerfully where you hoped for amazing things.
In conclusion, while I am happy this year to welcome Salvation Jane back as an old friend on grounds of sentiment, it is my sincere wish that it will never grasp the land so hard again, that it will not live up to its other name; Paterson’s Curse.