Ok, I will confess … this past fall, I allowed the cockleburs to take over my farm. I did not see it coming, but nevertheless, it happened.

For the purpose of clarity, let me simply say we call cockleburs “cuckleburs” where I come from ... “cuckle” as in “chuckle” ... “cucklebur.”

By definition, Xanthium (cocklebur) is a genius of flowering plant in the tribe Heliantheae within the family Asteraceae, native to the Americas and eastern Asia and parts of south Asia. Bet you didn’t know that.

My cocklebur invasion was only exacerbated — and I hate using big words — by the fact that I have three mules abiding on my spread (farm/pondarosa.) I’m here to tell you, mules are cocklebur magnets. By early winter, my mules had cuckleburs in their tails, on their legs, on their bellies, on their backs, in their manes and between their ears. There were so many in their tails that they walked around with their tails raised. I assumed that was to keep the prickly passengers from poking their posteriors. Their tails were so heavy they were unswishable.

Let me tell you about my mules, which were forced to endure cucklebur purgatory.

Tater Tot is a retired Grand Canyon mule. You gotta love a mule named Tater Tot. Sometimes, I am tempted to call him Tater, but that just wouldn’t be right. I can’t imagine a mule named Tater.

Out in the Grand Canyon, I have ridden mules named Budreau, HooDoo, Skidmark, Mutton, Gizmo, Junky, Lucy, Little Jed, and Mister, among others, but never a Tater. Last year, we figured out why Tater Tot was retired. When we mouthed him, we found he had a bunch of molars missing. So, he has trouble grinding his food. He’s as old as Methuselah, which means it is hard to keep weight on him. The cuckleburs made him look worse. I’m surprised he held up under their weight.

The other two mules came off a hitch of blazed-face, stocking-legged, sorrels out of Tucson, Arizona. Iris is going on 30 years old. Shy and slow to get to know you, she is a sweetheart. Maggie, half as old as Iris, is a strong and assertive high-stepper that runs the show. She was the least bothered by the cuckleburs, though her thick mane attracted hundreds.

Which, now, begs the question of how to rid a mule of cuckleburs. Let me count the ways. First, we tried baby oil. That helped loosen some. But timing is important here. Do you apply the oil and wait for it to work … how long?

I trimmed their manes with dull-pointed scissors (never take the chance of stabbing a mule.) The situation was far beyond using clippers. I must say that after three attempts, I did a pretty darn good job.

Then, we discovered horse mane and tail detangler.. Who would have thought it? By now, we were closing in on the cuckleburs, aided by spring shedding. But some cuckleburs don’t give up easily.

I heard that in bygone days that cotton pickers picked cotton until their fingers bled. I have felt their pain. The last of the cuckleburs did not give up without a fight. It all came down to hand-to-hand combat ... no comb or brush or scissors here. It was gore and guts, one cocklebur at-a- time.

It was a cool, breezy, spring afternoon when Tater Tot, Iris, and Maggie were declared “cucklebur free.” I promised each mule this would never happen again. But they seemed too focused on munching on oats to care.

When I was a boy growing up in Brim Hollow, I suppose that I removed a gazzillon stick tights from my socks, jeans, shirts, and short britches. It took determination and patience. Little did I know that it would prepare me for bigger battles to come.

I have no fondness for cuckleburs … neither do my mules.

Hartsville resident Jack McCall is an author and motivational speaker.

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