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Code pink: Popular flowers draw bioterrorism concerns

Posted: Monday, September 20, 2004

 

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  Employees at a greenhouse in Parkerford, Pa., work with geranium plants in this April 14, 2004 file photo. Geraniums are now on the Homeland Security bioterrorism list. The listing is in connection with a soil-borne pathogen called Ralstonia solanacearum, race 3 biovar 2, that accidentally slipped through a U.S. quarantine on shipments of geraniums twice in the past two years, the first from Kenya and again last winter from Guatemala. Not wanting to risk a potential outbreak, the governmenthad millions of geraniums destroyed in greenhouses across the country. Ralstonia's potential to wreak havoc on America's economy and food supply is what landed it in on the bioterrorism list, explained Fred Sorensen of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service. AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquir

Pelargoniums, also known more commonly as geraniums, are seen in bloom in Anchorage, Alaska, on June 29, 2004. Thomas Jefferson himself helped introduce these virtuous flowers to America in the late 1700s after falling under their trance in France. The flower, lovely, resilient, and universally popular are on the Homeland Security bioterrorism list.

AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, F

ANCHORAGE Geraniums lovely, resilient, universally popular. Thomas Jefferson himself helped introduce these virtuous flowers to America in the late 1700s after falling under their trance in France.

Turns out, we need to watch them very closely and report any suspicious activity. These little subversives are on the Homeland Security bioterrorism list.

Virginia McKinney discovered this just the other day. As she has for years, she took her geranium containers to Bell's Nursery in Anchorage for overwintering. But this time, as she walked through the door, she was halted in her tracks.

''Didn't you see the sign?

''What sign?''

Posted on the door at the Cranberry Street location was a notice handwritten on a fluorescent yellow paper: ''Please don't bring any geraniums inside.''

Another posting explained what this was all about. Something to do with national security.

''Bizarre,'' she thought.

We're talking GERANIUM, not uranium.

''The Division of Homeland Security who knew it could reach so far,'' said Steph Daniels, a horticulturist at Bell's.

Not to panic. Killer geraniums have not infiltrated our city. Bell's is just being extremely cautious because it has too much to lose.

This is about a soil-borne pathogen called Ralstonia solanacearum race 3 biovar 2 that accidentally slipped through a U.S. quarantine on shipments of geraniums twice in the past two years, the first from Kenya and again last winter from Guatemala. Not wanting to risk a potential outbreak, the government had millions of geraniums destroyed in greenhouses across the country.

Ralstonia's potential to wreak havoc on America's economy and food supply is what landed it in on the bioterrorism list, explained Fred Sorensen of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service.

''Homeland Security is on the lookout for any kind of bioterrorism that can hit crops,'' he explained.

Ralstonia is not harmful to humans. But it's like the anthrax of the plant world, lethal to many crops, especially tomatoes and potatoes. It easily spreads, then wilts, yellows, stunts and eventually kills. And there's no known way of stopping it.

 

Employees at a greenhouse in Parkerford, Pa., work with geranium plants in this April 14, 2004 file photo. Geraniums are now on the Homeland Security bioterrorism list. The listing is in connection with a soil-borne pathogen called Ralstonia solanacearum, race 3 biovar 2, that accidentally slipped through a U.S. quarantine on shipments of geraniums twice in the past two years, the first from Kenya and again last winter from Guatemala. Not wanting to risk a potential outbreak, the governmenthad millions of geraniums destroyed in greenhouses across the country. Ralstonia's potential to wreak havoc on America's economy and food supply is what landed it in on the bioterrorism list, explained Fred Sorensen of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service.

AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquir

The most recent killer-geranium suspects from Guatemala were traced to 43 states, and Alaska wasn't one of them, said Larry Hawkins, regional spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Sacramento.

However, some geraniums from the Kenya shipment two years ago did make it up here, he said.

Those geraniums were either captured, kept under surveillance and found to be disease-free or they were ''eliminated,'' as he puts it.

Executed, in other words. Flowers. By our government.

While other nurseries, like Dimond Greenhouse, are taking in geraniums for the winter, Bell's has an extra reason not to. Daniels and her co-workers have been explaining this to Bell's customers since last spring.

It's about the tomatoes.

Bell's is the largest hothouse grower of tomatoes in the state, Daniels said. And tomatoes are particularly susceptible to this disease.

''We're just being very careful,'' she said. ''I tell people, I'm very sorry. There is no disease. However, you can't bring them here because we have to protect ourselves.''

''This is not a USDA requirement,'' Hawkins said. ''We've solved the problem with those shipments that had the disease.''

But he understands why Bell's is on high alert.

''They just don't want to take that risk of somebody bringing them in, since you can't ask a geranium where it came from. We're not able to trace every single plant. There's always a possibility of a rogue plant out there.''

Instead of overwintering old geraniums, Bell's will be replanting their customers' baskets and containers with new ones. Even mixed flower baskets with a single geranium will be dumped and started over, Daniels said.

Some people hear that and just take their beloved geraniums back home.

''This morning people brought geraniums in, and I just went, 'Hel-lo,''' and walked over and explained, and carried them back to the car, Daniels said.

''Now,'' she said, ''we walk by the geraniums as people are loading them back in their cars, and go, 'You little terrorists.'''



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