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Weed wars

Posted: June 24, 2012 - 9:14pm

The Kenai Peninsula’s invasive weed-pulling warriors may be fighting a war that could go on forever, but to Janice Chumley it’s one always worth fighting.

Invasive weeds can cause havoc in an ecosystem — changing the activities of insects and creatures that make up the base of the food chain, affecting migratory birds and competing and perhaps winning the fight for soil, water and sun with trees and other brush, said Chumley, who works for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

The next round of the great weed war will be fought Saturday during the second annual Kenai Peninsula Weed Smackdown hosted at Seward Middle School from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be free lunch for volunteers, t-shirts and prizes. Gloves are provided.

This year’s Smackdown will focus on uprooting a patch of bird vetch — vicia cracca, of the pea family — which was originally brought to the area as forage for animals, Chumley said.

“Because it was always controlled or grazed or mowed for animal feed it was along fence rows, but it never got either eaten or removed and it has moved off site,” she said. “It is not really grown anymore for animal feed, but what has happened is it has moved into forested areas.”

When bird vetch moves into the forested areas, it becomes a fierce competitor for resources and often overgrows native vegetation thereby suffocating them, Chumley said.

“It wins because it says, ‘I’m growing over you,’” she said.

Seward Middle School has about half an acre of bird vetch.

“It is something children can participate in and I think that a lot of the kids that attend Seward Middle School will come for the Weed Smackdown to take ownership of their school yard and they realize it’s a plant that just doesn’t have any place in their ecosystem,” she said.

Chumley said she and others targeted bird vetch for the Smackdown because there are only a few small populations of the plant on the Kenai Peninsula, some of which have already been eradicated and some of which are mostly under control.

“In Fairbanks it is everywhere,” she said, adding that’s all the more reason to control it while they can.

At the June 19 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting, Chumley and several others suggested the borough alter its mowing schedule to help eradicate vetch, specifically on a patch in the ditch of Sport Lake Road.

“If they were to start mowing it on a regular basis earlier than when it went to flower or seed they could effectively stop it from spreading and if they kept mowing it they could ultimately kill it,” she said.

Last year’s inaugural Smackdown featured a pull of tansy, an invasive, tall yellow flower.
Tansy as a garden plant can be controlled but once it escapes cultivation it spreads rapidly, Chumley said, can grow in fields and is mildly toxic to animals.

“If moose were to eat it, it could cause them to abort their calves,” she said. “It has that ability and tansy has been found in a few areas but because it has been found early and been controlled it is really not that widespread.”

One invasive plant the central Peninsula area struggles with, Chumley said, is orange hawkweed. Once the plant is established it is extremely difficult to remove because of several biological defenses including its flying seeds and the chemical it can produce in the soil that prohibits other plants in the area from growing, she said.

“It is very pretty, it is something you don’t realize is a problem until you look around and you realize it has taken over your lawn or your garden,” she said.

Chumley said she has seen orange hawkweed grow to become the only plant on a five-acre parcel in about 15 years. Such an invasion has effects up the food chain.

“The native insects that we have ... if they go and utilize this plant instead of our native plants, then our native plants produce less seeds, these produce more and then sooner or later it keeps moving out,” she said. “But a lot of things don’t eat this plant. In fact, most things that I know of do not eat this plant.”

Chumley said she would encourage anyone who can’t attend Saturday’s Weed Smackdown in Seward to learn more about invasive weeds, other problem plants and what plants are native to the area.

“If people do run across a plant that they are unfamiliar with they can bring it in to the Cooperative Extension here for identification,” she said.“It is free of charge to do that and we have some great resources available for people and we’re also willing to work with landowners on giving them ideas for management plans.”

For more information, call the Cooperative Extension at 262-5824.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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