Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Purple Loosestrife and the Adirondacks

I was recently on a road trip to and from the beautiful state of Maine. The trip took me across Lake Champlain, through the agricultural and ski lands of Vermont, zipping down the forest-lined highways of New Hampshire, and then into Maine itself, where I briefly visited the coast before heading upstate to Augusta. As beautiful as each of these states is, there was one thing they all had in common: purple loosestrife.

I know, you are thinking “we’ve got purple loosestrife here in New York, too – even in the Adirondacks,” and you would be correct in this thought. But let me tell you – the Adirondacks have nothing compared to these other states, where this elegant purple flower is thick as thieves in every body of water I passed – be it fresh or salt. I was bowled over by how far its reach had stretched, and how established it had become.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), as most of us know, is a highly invasive non-native plant. Like many plants that line our roadways, it was brought over by early settlers as a reminder of their homeland and as a medicinal plant (it was used to treat such ailments as diarrhea, dysentery and ulcers). It is also believed that its seeds were transported in the ballast of ships. This was the early 1800s, and before long it had leapt the garden wall and was setting up housekeeping in nearby fields. When ships emptied their ballast water, the seeds found their way into our wetlands and a second base camp was established.

When purple loosestrife gets established, there isn’t a whole lot one can do. It’s roots grow into a dense mat that soon prevents other vegetation from growing. It chokes out native plants as it aggressively spreads, and when it goes to seed, the death knell is sounded. Each plant can produce up to three million seeds! Because they weigh next to nothing, these seeds are easily carried away by the wind, making distribution a breeze (no pun intended). Top this off with an extremely high viability rate, nearly 100%. The end result: once this plant is established and on the move, there is almost no stopping it.

Sure, it’s a pretty plant, and the bees seem to like it. As a flower in a garden, it seems harmless. If only it would stay there. But once turned loose and established in wetlands, that’s where the problem becomes serious. Wetlands are vital ecosystems, providing food, shelter and water to a variety of insects, plants and wildlife, but also helping mediate precipitation events. When the integrity of a wetland is disturbed, either by intentional destruction (draining, filling in) or accident (establishment of a purple loosestrife monoculture), the wetland and surrounding ecosystems suffer greatly.

So, how do we address this problem? Here in the Adirondacks were are lucky because a) we don’t have significant purple loosestrife infestations except maybe along the periphery of the Park, and b) we have a dedicated program (the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program) set up to tackle invasives.

Whenever I’ve seen purple loosestrife within the depths the Park, it has most often been an individual plant that is standing sentinel along the road or growing on the bank of a stream or pond. This is easily eradicated with a tug or a shovel (digging is actually more effective because you want to remove all the roots). Unfortunately, on State Land, one needs a permit to do this. This is where APIPP comes into play. These folks have the ways and means for keeping invasives under control.

Sadly, “under control” seems to be the key. Once established, many invasives, including purple loosestrife, are nearly impossible to eradicate. Individuals can be removed, but where colonies have taken over, the best we can hope for is prevention of further spread.

Hopefully we can spread the word to gardeners and nurseries: don’t buy or sell invasive species! And we can give our support to programs like APIPP, either by volunteering as an invasive plant spotter, or by writing to our politicians to make sure they know that controlling invasive species is important. Otherwise, I can foresee a future where the ponds, lakes, and streams that make the Adirondack Park so spectacular will look like the ponds, lakes, streams and coastline of our neighboring states – a lovely shade of purple, but little else.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





3 Responses

  1. Ellen Rathbone says: