That’s the sound of a weed pulling team, hard at it on a gorgeous Saturday in Palmer.
With our matching red tee shirts and white cotton gardeners gloves, we could be mistaken for cartoon characters, but we were on a serious mission to eradicate a botanical pest… it’s called bird vetch. Mark Much [muck] is with the state division of forestry, and today he’s leading a group of volunteer weed pullers at a local park. He says a good many invasive plants were brought to Alaska by chance
“So there’s a lot of ways invasives get here. They can come across by shipping. People can drive up here, actually, and it can be the vehicle. Even naturally. Birds can bring invasives into different areas, too. “
Others got here when they were actually imported for a reason.
Bird vetch — our target pest — was spread along new roadways to stablize soil. That was a mistake. The plant looks absolutely non threatening … at first. It’s got pretty blueish purple flowers and fringed leaves growing off a tiny stem thin as microfilament. But allow it to grow a year or two and it will create a living tsunami, covering every other plant in its path. Much says it creates a monoculture..it can take over so completely that it allows nothing else to live.
“It has this purple flower, and the flower is all on one side of the stem, if you kind of look at it. And one of the kickers here is that it has these little tendrils that actually bind to the other vegetation. But these tendrils, actually, if you hold it with your little finger, in time will actually start to grab you after you pick it. It will actually move, slowly. It’s kind of creepy. “
Our group of ten adults and kids is working at Lucas Kiwanis Park, and there is plenty of bird vetch to be pulled here, especially near the kids play area
It’s not hard work. But it does reveal the depth of the problem. I uncover a struggling wild currant and a shrub with pretty yellow berries that I couldn’t even see before the invasive vetch was pulled away.
The bird vetch is so thick that it is climbing a baby cottonwood, and strangling fireweed in it’s march up the hill. Much helps one young weed warrior with technique:
“Can you see where it goes into the ground.?” ‘ Uhuh’ ” Actually, rather than just pull it up here, what this will do is just rip it right off at the seems. But if you get down and get in and get some of this root system in here…..you can actually.. it may not come back it’s more likely to come back if you leave the root system in the ground. “
This is the second year that the Palmer Soil and Water District has hosted the weed whackdown. This year about 70 people showed up in support, like Weed warrior Mary Donlin
” A few years back I sat in the grass I couldn’t even have told you what I was sitting on. And I said, you know, I’m going to change that. So I started applying myself pretty seriously to studying plants. And once you do that, the invasives, Ha Ha, get ahold of you, because they are everywhere. And you go “what is this plant that is choking everything out?” And in this case, of course, we have the bird vetch, and it doesn’t look natural and it is taking away the space and energy and everything for other plants. And you go, okay that’s an imbalance, what else is going on. So you just start learning. “
We pull up the vetch and some pesky toadflax, too, until early afternoon. After our work , the little hillside next to the playground looks completely different. Now it’s an open grassy spot with bright fireweed and inviting green grass, where before it looked like a tropical jungle.
Louisa Branchflower a natural resources manager with the Palmer Soil and Water Conservation District, says there’s many varieties of invasive plant species: white sweetclover and reed canary grass are two on the hit list
“Well, it can cause a lot of problems economically. It’s a nuisance, it gets into people’s gardens, it gets into people’s farms and can cause crop damage. It can be a problem for wildlife, for fish. You know, because some of the reed canary grass and some of the other plants can actually get into salmon streams and change the general of the stream, and that can be bad for salmon rearing habitat. “
As a souvenier of our day battling weeds, we each receive a small booklet detailing the various invasives cropping up in Alaska. Then it’s back to downtown for some music and a barbecue. I’m Ellen Lockyer