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Friday, August 10, 2012

Nixing the Noxious…

obnoxious weedThe Asian weed pickers were out in the Valley the other day. I posted about them last summer (“One Man’s Weed is Another Man’s Soup..or Medicine, 8/13/2011).Their foraging reminded me of a visitor our neighbors had the other day. While I was mowing the lawn, I noticed a white pickup slow to a stop at the neighbors’ mailbox. A woman carrying a handful of papers stepped out, looked around, hopped back in the pickup, and drove down their driveway. I watched the truck as it rolled to a stop. There was something official-looking about it, perhaps because of the official-looking writing on the sides. Still wielding her papers, the lady climbed the steps and knocked at the wrong door. The writing on the door of the truck…the handful of papers: “Tax assessor,” I thought and resumed mowing.

I nearly forgot about the visitor next door until I saw her wave goodbye to the neighbor and walk to her truck. Instead of a handful of paper she was carrying a bundle of greenery looking not the least bit bouquet-ish. In order to discover its “official business,” I trotted to the right-of-way as the truck left the neighbors’ driveway and passed by. On the side of the door were the words: “Washington State Noxious Weed Control” “Aha!” I thought. And now the backstory.

Three years ago the neighbors decided to plant a vegetable garden. They staked off a plot. A friend tilled it and prepared the soil for planting. The neighbors were excited about their new garden and planted a nice variety of vegetables from seeds and seedlings alike. To their dismay not only did the seeds sprout but along with them some obnoxious weed. The troublemaker literally furred the garden, grew so quickly in a lush, green carpet that it soon crowded the seedlings and choked the rows of vegetables. Thus began a summer of constant, aggressive weeding that seemed to accomplish little: one weed pulled, three grew back.

Last year and this season the weed made encore performances. After the spring tilling it came back with a vengeance, thick as moss. Small seedlings like carrots were so well buried in the weed, you couldn’t find them and were likely to pull the carrot sprouts up with the weeds. Where the pest was undisturbed, it grew to a thick mat eighteen inches or so high, then flowered.weed encroachment On a warm day the sea of tiny white blossoms gave off a cloying, pungent fragrance. Chuck, one of the neighbors told me, “I’m tired of fighting it. Next year it’s another small greenhouse and we’re bringing in topsoil to fill the raised beds.” Not quite ready to cry “Uncle” though, Chuck thought he’d contact the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board to discover just what obnoxious weed he’d been doing battle with the past three years. Thus the official white truck in the neighbors’ driveway.

Having on occasion plucked that weed from my own garden, I was curious about the plant myself. The next time I saw Chuck I asked him if he learned anything. “No,” he shook his head. “I need to call and find out.” I decided to investigate for him and set aside some time from my editorial duties, snapped some photos of the floral invader, attached them to my inquiry, and sent the email off to the Noxious Weed folks for identification.weed forest

I received a prompt reply from Wendy DesCamps of the Noxious Weed Control Board. The plant pictured, Wendy said, appeared to be Corn Spurry (Spergula arvensis) and sent me a link detailing the natural history of this plant. Spurries, according to Webster’s Ninth Collegiate, belong to “the pink family,”and S. arvensis is a common European weed. The site revealed this fact about Chuck’s nemesis: “Each plant can produce 10,000 seeds that remain viable for up to ten years.” “Ah, Chuck,” I thought, “looks like you have your own Seven Year War ahead of you.” Only  constant tilling and an aggressive spray program could subdue the spurry.

For you readers who might be weed-choked, the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board apparently will rush to your assistance—or at least answer your emails promptly. NWCB states a “’noxious weed’ is the traditional, legal term for any invasive, non-native plant that threatens agricultural crops, local ecosystems or fish and wildlife habitat.” According to the Board nearly half the listed noxious weeds are escapees from gardens and landscaping. The Weed Control board has listed three categories of noxious weeds. Weeds designated Class A in Washington State are required by state law (WAC 16-750) to be eradicated. Class B weeds may at the Board’s discretion be designated for removal. Counties, if they think necessary, may elect to eliminate Class C weeds they consider harmful to their counties. NWCB also has a quarantine list which includes all Class A noxious weeds and bans by law their importation to the state.

Other government agencies work in concert with the NWCB to do battle with the State’s noxious flora. The Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Forest Service workers are periodically sent into the field solely for that purpose. In recent years, in a proactive move at weed control, the Forest Service has posted notices (reminiscent of our local apple maggot warning signs) at the egress to woodland roads accessing the high country visited by horse and mule trains packing in campers. The signs warn that only state certified hay is allowed to pass that point (no weeds allowed!).

Last week I spent a half dozen hours bug collecting along FS Road 7905 south of Tumwater Canyon. For hours my only companions were the towering Ponderosa pines and the rush of sound from a creek that cascaded down the mountainside. My solitude was interrupted when a big Ford king cab, canopied, eased its way to a stop opposite my little Toyota. The driver, a jaunty young man wearing an Aussie-style hat and a smile larger than he, hopped out and wanted to know what I was up to. I briefly explained my business and asked his, nodding toward the “XMT” designation on the vehicle’s license plate.Weed pluck truck “On the government payroll?” I asked. I’m told “yes” and the young man introduces himself as Tyler. Tyler and his motley crew of four (motley, yet happy) work for the Washington Conservation Corps and are on a mission to eradicate diffuse knapweed (Centaurea diffusa) from state forests’ roadsides. Today’s assignment: FS Road 7905 and since morning they have worked their way down to my site. Only a mile and a half to go and the pickup’s bed and canopy are already packed full of trash bags containing the plucked knapweed later to be deposited at a Forest Service disposal site. I asked Tyler if he was involved in combating the invasive Japanese knotweed west of the Cascades. (Japanese knotweed falls into noxious weed category B. The plant, previously used in landscaping because of its heart-shaped foliage, is one of those escapee species that’s bullied its way into the environment.) Valley knotweedThick coverts of the bamboo-like plant clog the roadside of SR. 203 between Duvall and Fall City. Knotweed is an excellent late summer nectar source for honeybees who readily forage in the creamy white flower spikes. The plant yields a flavorful, dark honey and is currently beginning its bloom cycle.) Knotweed, Tyler tells me, is rampant in the Skokomish watershed and the Conservation Corps is aggressively battling it there.Bee visiting knotweed

Tyler’s crew, plastic buckets and bags stuffed with knapweed, catch up with their ride. Three young men and a young woman make up the work gang. Exposed to a summer of eastern Washington sun, they are well-tanned and though it’s past noon, still energetic and enthusiastic about their work. The young lady, spotting my insect net, is curious about my activities. When I tell her I’m on the hunt for a certain butterfly, she shares that she herself is collecting dragonflies and donates her catch to Evergreen State College, her alma mater. She’s familiar with our State insect, the Green Darner dragonfly. Coincidentally as we speak, a fleet of fifty “mosquito hawks” provide us air cover. I point them out to her. I learn she has a degree in environmental science.  As if in apology she explains,“It’s just a general studies degree.” That’s ok,” I reply, “the environment’s just about everywhere, isn’t it?” Not only does she know about our State insect, but our State bird as well and proudly displays a larger than life tattoo of an American Goldfinch male on her upper arm. “It’s my favorite bird,” she boasts.

The weed pluckers took advantage of the diversion (me) to take a break. They loll about the truck and take deep pulls from their water bottles. I ask if I might make a digital recording of our meeting. They agree and request I take their camera and snap a group photo of them in return. They pose and I prompt them with: “Say ‘weeds.’” They smile. “One more,” I say. For the second shot I encourage the five with: “Say ‘weed’” and am rewarded with broad smiles this time—especially from the young lady. Then off they go, Tyler ahead in the truck, on down the road, the crew swinging their buckets after him, stooping now and then to grab a handful of knapweed, two per side of the road. As I watch them go about their work, I think how lucky they are to have such a summer job--out in the piney woods in the company of creeks and waterfalls and wildlife, plenty of exercise, fresh air and sunshine.govt weed pluckers

By the way Corn Spurry is not on any of the NWCB’s lists. According to Wendy the weed is a plant of cultivated fields and while it is indeed “obnoxious,” the weed has never been a problem to the State’s farmers. That may be so, Ms. DesCamps, but you’d have a hard time convincing the neighbors of that.

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