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Mark Daul: A beautiful plant that is an invader

by jmaloni
Sat, Sep 7th 2013 06:55 am
Purple loosestrife in a meadow just outside Lewiston.
Purple loosestrife in a meadow just outside Lewiston.

by Mark Daul

Outdoors in Niagara

Purple loosestrife is really a beautiful looking plant and many would wonder why it is such an undesirable plant. But it is a plant that can pose a danger to our ecosystem without most people even noticing. You will see it growing in fields, along streams, in wetlands, marshes and meadows, choking out natural beneficial vegetation. Fish, plants, mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and frogs etc., rely on healthy wetland habitat for their survival. In my observations of a ditch near my house, I have seen little white butterflies floating from plant to plant and the same with a tiny bee of some kind. I tried several times to get a photo but failed; they wouldn't stay still long enough.

I'm not talking about purple loosestrife in some strange, far away country; I'm talking right here in all of Western New York, and just about every state in the U.S. It affects all of us. Most people don't know what they are looking at when they see it, thinking it is just another wildflower of some kind. It's not "just another." It has been growing out of control for decades. It was first introduced to the U.S. along the New England seaboard - in eastern Massachusetts, New Jersey, the Hudson River in New York, and in Pennsylvania. It came from Europe in the 1800s as a hitchhiker arriving in the ballasts of a ship, like our zebra mussels and round gobies did, along with other invasive critters. It has spread throughout the lower 48 states, except Florida, and even into Canada.

If you don't want to venture into a marsh or wetland to see this stuff, all you have to do is just take a ride anywhere along country roads. You will see oodles of it just growing wild, islands of it, and meadows swaying in the wind. It sure looks pretty.

Scientists say one plant alone can produce more than 2 million seeds a year, and those seeds can stay alive for many years. The seeds are in the flower top. The plant stands anywhere from 2 to 7 feet tall, with beautiful purplish flowers growing at the top of the stem. The flowers have five or six petals per flower. Shown in the photo is purple loosestrife growing on Swann Road. The flowers grow close to the stem and the leaves are shaped like a peppermint leaf and grow opposite one another on the stiff four-sided stem. The plant blooms from early July through September.

Our wetlands are the backbone support for a healthy wetland and marshland and loosestrife needs to be controlled. Finally scientists are working on it. The plant has become so widespread throughout the country, so many of them established that all can be done right now is try to control it. But that is tough; herbicides are indiscriminate, even burning doesn't result in complete control. Scientists in many states are now experimenting with "bug" methods for control.

In Europe, they claim loosestrife isn't so widespread because of the bugs that offer some control. For years, scientists have been reluctant to import those little buggers from Europe for fear they would upset other things in our environment. It was another case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't." The state Department of Environmental Conservation has released two species of leaf eating beetles to help control the plant. The effects of this type of biological control can't be seen for 3 to 8 years, and it is claimed eventually they will reduce up to 90 percent of the population of this purple invader.

Whatever you do, don't plant this in your garden or backyard, which many people already have done. If you find one in your yard or garden, pull it out by its roots and destroy the whole thing. You will be doing your part for ecology's sake, and your neighbors won't be talking about you behind your back.

Burning in a safe way is the best way to dispose of it. The plant can regenerate if cut or if a stand is left of any kind.

I hope this little tidbit of an invader story will make you want to get outdoors and see the other side. There is much to do and see and talk about in the outdoors. Get out, look around, and see if you can find that purple "Darth Invader" from another continent.

Wrapping up, I recently got an earful from an interested reader living in Youngstown, and I hope to share some of it with you in a near future column. I'll call her the "mystery lady" for now. Part of it is about a large cat that has powerful limbs and can leap as high as 15 feet and as far as 40 feet. There is one in the Sentinel readership area and I have a picture to prove it. No, this one can't even scratch its own fleas, let alone bother anybody.

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