County's most wanted weed

June 21st 2016

It lurks in backyards, open spaces and on roadsides. First, just one shows up, but then many follow, taking over with surprising vigor.

It's Clatsop County's newest invasive weed - policeman's helmet, a deceptively pretty flower atop clusters of tall leafy stalks that can grow to be 6 feet tall.

The plant is taking a foothold in the county, and because of its charming appearance, some residents have even welcomed it into their gardens.

That's a mistake, according to weed experts like Dave Ambrose of the Clatsop Soil and Water Conservation District.

"Humans tend to spread it a lot," Ambrose said.

The plant blooms midsummer and then goes to seed - producing about 800 spring-loaded seeds that explode in a 20-foot diameter when touched.

Now is the time to find the plants and dispose of the seeds properly so they don't take over, Ambrose said.

"Otherwise, next year's crop is in the ground already," he said.

A history of invasives

Clatsop County already hosts dozens of invasive plant species like Scotch broom, spartina and gorse.

Policeman's helmet came on the radar more than a year ago, when local weed management staff were working on eradicating Japanese knotweed, Ambrose said. The plant thrives in areas that have been recently cleared - like roadsides and streambeds - and has a similar habitat as knotweed.

"It takes over and becomes a monoculture and crowds out the natives," he said. "Even the slugs don't like it,"

Stemming the spread of weeds early is crucial, Ambrose said. policeman's helmet falls into a category of invasives that has become more established, but doesn't have quite the presence of Scotch broom, for example.

"I've pretty much given up on Scotch broom. It's everywhere so we're just going to have to live with it," he said.

The Soil and Water Conservation District is the de facto noxious weed control program in the county. Funding is almost completely grant-driven, Ambrose said.

"There's very specific list of weeds that they'll consider giving us money for," Ambrose said.

Outreach is key. Residents must know how to identify the plant and how to dispose of it properly. For policeman's helmet, the plant must be pulled out by the roots and either dried out and properly disposed of or burned so that the seeds cannot grow. Many people dump yard debris improperly on vacant land or near waterways, and the plants can take root again or get carried downstream.

But it's not too late to have an impact on policeman's helmet's spread through the county, Ambrose said. Several local groups work together in partnerships to keep information flowing about where the weeds are located, where they are moving to and where help must be directed to destroy out-of-control growth.

The Northwest Weed Management Partnership promotes the identification and management of invasive plant species in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. The group facilitates workshops and field trips, distributes information and participates in working groups that conduct inventory, mapping and prevention activities, share technical information on control methodologies and support research efforts.

NWMP is an informal network of individuals, government entities, organizations and businesses guided by a Steering Committee. Currently, the Steering Committee includes Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Six Cooperative Weed Management Areas have been formed in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington to plan and execute local invasive weed management projects.

Teamwork gets it done

In Clatsop County, volunteers, nonprofits and government agencies have put together an Early Detection and Rapid Response program to investigate, map, monitor and prioritize new, high-priority invasives.

Residents can call in with their concerns and staff will enter the information into a database and formulate a plan for the area.

People first need to hear about target species so they can locate them, said Jesse Jones, the coordinator of the North Coast Watershed Association.

"It's going to take a really strong partnership between residents and agencies to get it done," Jones said.

While Jones knows they won't learn about every patch of policeman's helmet or other invasives, knowing that battle is being waged one weed at a time keeps the fight going.

"If I can educate that one person and we can respond to every phone call we get, then it's not overwhelming," she said.

Jones will monitor a spot for two years to be sure the plants have been completely destroyed.

"If you don't dispose of it properly, it makes your efforts totally futile," Jones said.

Glenn Ahrens, the forestry chair of Oregon State University's Extension Service, said the solution to a lot of weed problems he sees is to grow dominant, healthy forests in their place.

"Many weed problems go away," he said.

Ahrens is optimistic that the weed management groups that have been formed have a fighting chance at combating policeman's helmet and other invasives, so long as they do it together.

"You have to really cooperate and collaborate across jurisdictions," he said.