Last Sunday, the sun was shining. The birds were singing. Doug and I were dipping buckets of water from our tiny pond and hauling them in our Powerwagon (learn about the tool that has turned us into superman and wonderwoman here) to all the places we started new plants this year. Fresh faces are also cropping up on the dam since we have been scything out the invasives there, and a charming purple flower caught my eye. I scrambled up the slope for a closer look. It had a square stem, topped with a spear of tiny purple flowers. Didn’t recognize it. (Add background music in menacing minor key to the soundtrack at this point in the drama.)
We tenderly slipped a purple flower stalk into a cup water to keep it fresh for keying out once we got home. We found square stems of purple flowers staring at us from an invasive menace list – was this our first sighting of the dreaded Purple Loosestrife?
It was a sinking feeling. We just wrapped up the campaign against Wild Parsnip for this year and are feeling like we have a fighting chance to repel the incursion of Garlic Mustard that appeared out of nowhere in our woods last year. And don’t even get me started on the multiflora rose, various thorny brambles and Canada Thistle! Even if they weren’t invasives I don’t care to be jabbed, poked and my clothes ripped to shreds every time I venture off a trail.
OK, I told myself. OK, I can handle it. Bloodied but unbowed. Put up your dukes, Purple Loosestrife. I’ll jump back in the ring for another round. One thing I’ve learned about squaring off against invasive plants – the job doesn’t get easier if you delay.
So what could I find out fast about Purple Loosestrife? It’s a menace because it insinuates itself into natural and disturbed wetlands, then grabs all the resources from native grasses, sedges and other flowering plants. That’s bad news for wildlife, because PL doesn’t offer the good eats that native plants do. And, it grows so thick that it actually crowds out habitat for waterfowl.
A single root can support as many as 30 stalks of gorgeous magenta flowers and produce 3 million seeds a year. And that same busy root is also sending out underground stems at a rate of about one foot per year. If you haven’t seen it yet, be assured, it is coming. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported it in every state except Florida.
Sadly, despite the fact it could be nicknamed Monster-on-the-loosestrife, it is still sold in nurseries as an ornamental except where prohibited by law in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are trying to preserve large areas of glacial marsh.
Minnesota has a great ID page. Check it out here. I focused on this page because it also has photos of close look-alikes that don’t need to be on anyone’s hit list. I try to be surgical about these things. I wasn’t drawn to native ecosystem restoration just so I could kill plants (though I have enough sap on my hands to do Lady Macbeth’s monologue).
(Sound trumpets on the soundtrack at this point!) And now for the happy ending. I emailed the link to Doug at work Monday morning, and he (I love being married to a scientist) zoomed in on the fact that our purple beauty had toothed, not smooth-edged leaves and identified our pretty purple plant as one of the look-alikes — Blue Vervain – not Purple Loosestrife. Hallelujah!
What is growing along my pond is a sweet little flower that Native Americans found both edible and medicinal. Learning that it wasn’t Purple Loosestrife sure had a tonic effect on me. I thought it was pretty when I first noticed it. Now I think it is gorgeous. Blue Vervain. My new favorite flower.
For those of you who are not so fortunate and actually have Purple Loosestrife to deal with – I wish you luck. I am in no way smug about this close shave. Tomorrow it could be my pond that is home to one of those three million seeds floating and flying away from any single PL in the area.
RULES OF WARFARE
- Hand-to-Hand Combat: Plants less than three years old can be pulled by hand. Larger ones may have to be eased out with a garden fork. Get as much of that prolific root as you can. Bag the whole lot and take them far from your wetland. Landfill or burn them. (No stake through the heart required.)
- Chemical Weapons: I’m not into these, but again, Minnesota DNR has all the details. Check here
- Biological control: There is serious research going into finding bugs to chow on PL , but the concept always makes me a little nervous. As the USGS succinctly puts it, “…the generally beneficial effects of biological control programs can also have negative economic or ecological impacts on nontarget organisms.” To see a nightmare scenario, check out the darkly funny short film Cane Toads: An Unnatural History in which Australians introduce cane toads from Hawaii to eat their greyback beetles. Now toads have taken over, eating everything but greyback beetles. You can watch it on You Tube here
Interesting aside: I learned from a beekeeper’s blog that honey from Purple Loosestrife tastes good, but has the greenish caste of motor oil.
Another episode in the life of novice land stewards. As Henry James put it.
We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have.
For my next post on Friday, I’ll still be hanging around the water to talk about how we put the milfoil mass choking our pond to good use.