Summer of Weeds: Common Mullein

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of common mullein are familiar and friendly enough that it can be hard to think of this plant as a weed. Verbascum thapsus is a member of the figwort family and is known by dozens of common names, including great mullein, Aaron’s rod, candlewick, velvet dock, blanket leaf, feltwort, and flannel plant. Its woolly leaves are warm and inviting and have a history of being used as added padding and insulation, tucked inside of clothing and shoes. In Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “the dried stalks are ideal for use as hand-drills to start fires; the flowers and leaves produce yellow dye; as a toilet paper substitute, the large fresh leaves are choice.”

Common mullein is a biennial that was introduced to eastern North America from Eurasia in the 1700’s as a medicinal plant and fish poison. By the late 1800’s it had reached the other side of the continent. In its first year it forms a rosette of woolly, oblong and/or lance-shaped leaves. After overwintering it produces a single flower stalk up to 6 feet tall. The woolly leaves continue along the flower stalk, gradually getting smaller in size until they reach the inflorescence, which is a long, dense, cylindrical spike. Sometimes the stalk branches out to form multiple inflorescences.

First year seedlings of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The inflorescence doesn’t flower all at once; instead, a handful of flowers open at a time starting at the bottom of the spike and moving up in an irregular pattern. The process takes several weeks to complete. The flowers are about an inch wide and sulfur yellow with five petals. They have both female and male sex parts but are protogynous, meaning the female organs mature before the male organs. This encourages cross-pollination by insects. However, if pollination isn’t successful by the end of the day, the flowers self-pollinate as the petals close. Each flower produces a capsule full of a few hundred seeds, and each plant can produce up to 180,000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for over 100 years, sitting in the soil waiting for just the right moment to sprout.

Common mullein is a friend of bare, recently disturbed soil. It is rare to see this plant growing in thickly vegetated areas. As an early successional plant, its populations can be abundant immediately after a disturbance, but they do not persist once other plants have filled in the gaps. Instead they wait in seed form for the next disturbance that will give them the opportunity to rise again. They can be a pest in gardens and farm fields due to regular soil disturbance, and are often abundant in pastures and rangelands because livestock avoid eating their hairy leaves. Because of its ephemeral nature, it is generally not considered a major weed; however, it is on Colorado’s noxious weed list.

Several features make common mullein a great example of a drought-adapted plant. Its fleshy, branching taproot can reach deep into the soil to find moisture, the thick hairs on the leaves help reduce water loss via transpiration, and the way the leaves are arranged and angled on the stalk can help direct rain water down toward the roots.

Common mullein has an extensive history of ethnobotanical uses. Medicinally it has been used internally to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and kidney infections; and as a poultice to treat warts, slivers, and swelling. The dried flower stalks have been used to make torches, and the fuzzy leaves have been used as tinder for fire-making and wicks in lamps.

The hairy leafscape of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

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Quote of the Week:

From Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Here’s why opportunistic plants are so successful. When we clear land or carve a forest into fragments, we’re creating lots of open niches. All that sunny space and bare soil is just crying out to be colongized by light- and fertlity-absorbing green matter. Nature will quickly conjure up as much biomass as possible to capture the bounty, by seeding low-growing ‘weeds’ into a clearing or, better yet, sprouting a tall thicket stretching into all three dimensions to more effectively absorb light and develop deep roots. … When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this. … And [nature] doesn’t care if a nitrogen fixer or a soil-stabilizing plant arrived via continental drift or a bulldozer’s treads, as long as it can quickly stitch a functioning ecosystem together.

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Love and Hate – The Story of Purple Loosestrife

In the early 1800’s, seeds of purple loosestrife found their way to North America. They arrived from Europe several times by various means – accidentally embedded in the ballast of ships, inadvertently tucked in sheep’s wool, and purposely carried in the hands of humans. Native to much of Europe and parts of Asia and commonly found growing in wetlands and other riparian areas, purple loosestrife’s appealing spikes of magenta flowers, sturdy, upright growth habit, and ease of propagation made it a prized ornamental; its abundant nectar made it a favorite of beekeepers.

During its first 150 years or so in North America, purple loosestrife became naturalized in ditches, wet meadows, and the banks of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds while also enjoying a place in our gardens. Concern about its spread was raised in the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s after an extensive survey was done and a special report was issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that attitudes about purple loosestrife shifted dramatically. At that point, it was no longer a benign invader and welcome garden companion. It was, instead, a biological menace that needed to be destroyed.

Lytrhrum salicaria – commonly known as purple loosestrife, spiked willow-herb, long purples, rainbow weed, etc. – is an herbaceous perennial in the family Lythraceae. It reaches up to two meters tall; has square or angular stems with lance-shaped, stalkless leaves up to ten centimeters long; and ends in dense, towering spikes of pink-purple, 5-7 petaled flowers. The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinating insects – mostly bees – and afterwards produce small capsules full of tiny, red-brown seeds. Charles Darwin thoroughly studied the flowers of purple loosestrife; he was intrigued by the plant for many reasons, including its heterostyly (a topic for another post).

Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife seeds remain viable for up to 20 years and are transported by wind, water, and in mud stuck to the feet of birds. Apart from seeds, populations expand clonally as root crowns grow larger each year and produce increasingly more stems. Broken stem pieces also take root in mud, creating new plants. Purple loosestrife’s ability to form expansive populations in a quick manner, pushing other plants aside and forming what appears to be a dense monoculture, is part of the reason it has earned itself a place among the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of 100 World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.

But is this ranking justified? In a paper published in Biological Invasions in 2010, Claude Lavoie compares news reports about purple loosestrife around the turn of the century with data presented in scientific papers and finds that the reports largely exaggerate the evidence. Purple loosestrife was being accused of all manner of crimes against nature and was being condemned before there was sound evidence to justify such actions.

It began with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s special report published in 1987. According to Lavoie, “a long list of the impacts of the species on wetland flora and fauna [was] presented,” but the claims were not supported by observational or experimental data – “the impacts [were] only suspected.” Regardless, wetland managers began campaigns against purple loosestrife in order to convince the public that it was a Beautiful Killer. News outlets were quick to spread the word about this “killer” plant. When biological control programs began in the 1990’s, news outlets reported on their success. Little empirical evidence had been published on either topic, and debates about purple loosestrife’s impacts remained unsettled in the scientific community.

The flowers of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Around this time, five reviews were published examining the evidence against purple loosestrife. Lavoie reports that all but one of them “rely on a relatively high number of sources that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals.” After examining the reviews, Lavoie concludes: “although each review provided valuable information on purple loosestrife, most were somewhat biased and relied on a substantial amount of information that was anecdotal or not screened by reviewers during a formal evaluation process. Only one review was impartial, and this one painted an inconclusive picture of the species.”

Research has continued regarding the impacts of purple loosestrife, and so Lavoie examined 34 studies that were published during the 2000’s in search of conclusive evidence that the plant is as destructive to wetlands and wildlife as has been claimed. Upon examination he concludes that “stating that this plant has ‘large negative impacts’ on wetlands is probably exaggerated.” The most common accusation – that purple loosestrife crowds out native plants and forms a monoculture – “is controversial and has not been observed in nature (with maybe one exception).” Lavoie finds that there is “certainly no evidence that purple loosestrife ‘kills wetlands’ or ‘creates biological deserts,'” and “there are no published studies [in peer-reviewed journals] demonstrating that purple loosestrife has an impact on waterfowl or fishes.” All other negative claims against purple loosestrife “have not been the object of a study,” except for its impact on amphibians, which had at that time only been tested on two species, one “reacting negatively.” Certain claims – such as purple loosestrife’s impact on wetland hydrology – should be studied more in depth “considering the apparent public consensus on the detrimental effects of purple loosestrife” on wetland ecosystems.

Lavoie agrees that it is reasonable to control purple loosestrife when the intention is to reduce additional pressures on an ecosystem that is already highly threatened. However, he warns that “focusing on purple loosestrife instead of on other invasive species or on wetland losses to agriculture or urban sprawl could divert the attention of environmental managers from more urgent protection needs.” There is mounting evidence that purple loosestrife invasions are disturbance-dependent and are “an indicator of anthropogenic disturbances.” In order to protect our wetlands, we must first protect them against undue disturbance. Lavoie supports using the Precautionary Principle when dealing with introduced species; however, he finds the approach “much more valuable for newcomers than for invaders coexisting with native species for more than a century.”

A field of purple loosestrife in Massachusetts – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife has found its way to nearly every state in America and most of the Canadian provinces. Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “Conservationists despise purple loosestrife, despite its beauty, and it is listed as an invasive species in most of the states where it grows.” By listing a plant as a noxious weed, landowners are obligated to remove it. Care must be taken though, as removal of purple loosestrife can result in a secondary invasion by noxious weeds with an even worse track record, such as common reed or reed canary grass. “Hardly a gain from the biodiversity point of view,” quips Lavoie.

Claude Lavoie’s paper and the papers he references are definitely worth reading. It is important that we continue to study purple loosestrife and species like it in order to fully understand the impact that introduced species are having on natural areas, especially since it is unlikely that we will ever completely eliminate them. On that note, I’ll leave you with this passage from The Book of Swamp and Bog by John Eastman:

The situation is easy for environmentalists to deplore. This plant, like few others, stirs our alien prejudice. Our native cattails, for example, are almost as rudely aggressive and competitive in many wetland areas as purple loosestrife. Yet, because cattails obvioulsy ‘belong here,’ they seldom evoke the same outraged feelings against their existence. … With the spread of purple loosestrife, we have new opportunities to witness the phases of an ever-recurring ecological process. We can watch it affect, change, adapt, and refit both its own elements and those of invaded communities into new arrangements of energy efficiency. The point is that we might as well study this process rather than simply deplore it; we have few alternatives.

Introducing Invasive Species

The terms “invasive” or “invasive species” get thrown around a lot. They are frequently used to describe anything that is “misbehaving,” or acting in a way that doesn’t fit our idealized vision for how a landscape should look and function. Oftentimes a species that is introduced (by humans) or is not native to an area automatically gets labeled invasive, even if it isn’t acting aggressively or having any sort of dramatic impact on the ecosystem. It is an alien species in an alien environment; it has invaded, therefore it is invasive.

image credit: cartoon movement

image credit: cartoon movement

Determining what is actually invasive in what location and at what time is much more complex than that. We do our best to understand the natural features and functions of ecosystems, and we single out any species, whether introduced or not, that is acting to upset things. That species is considered invasive and, if the goal is to restore the natural balance, it must be controlled. To what degree a species should be controlled depends on the degree that it is upsetting things. Ultimately, it comes down to human judgement. Hopefully that judgement is based on the best available evidence, but that isn’t always the case.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What I mostly want to accomplish with this post is to introduce the concept of invasive species and point you to a selection of resources to learn more about them. I defined invasive species in a post I wrote back in August 2015, so I will repeat myself here:

“Invasive species” is often used inappropriately to refer to any species that is found outside of its historic native range (i.e. the area in which it evolved to its present form). More appropriate terms for such species are “introduced,” “alien,” “exotic,” “non-native,” and “non-indigenous.” The legal definition of an invasive species (according to the US government) is “an alien species that does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Even though this definition specifically refers to “alien species,” it is possible for native species to behave invasively.

These terms refer not just to plants but to all living organisms. The term “noxious weed,” on the other hand, is specific to plants. A noxious weed is a plant species that has been designated by a Federal, State, or county government as “injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, or property.” A “weed” is simply a plant that, from a human perspective, is growing in the wrong place, and any plant at any point could be determined to be a weed if a human says so.

Invasive species are easily one of the most popular ecological and environmental topics, and resources about them abound – some more credible than others. Here is a list of places to start:

That should get you started. There are, of course, numerous books on the subject, as well as a number of peer-reviewed journals dedicated to biological invasions. You should also be aware that IUCN maintains a list of the Top 100 World’s Worst Invasive Species and that there is a National Invasive Species Awareness Week, which is quickly approaching. This episode of Native Plant Podcast with Jamie Reaser (executive director of National Invasive Species Council) offers an informative discussion about invasive species, and a search for “invasive species” on You Tube brings up dozens of results including this brief, animated video:

 

I want to believe that we are doing the right thing when we make concerted efforts to remove invasive species and restore natural areas, but I’m skeptical. The reason why I have chosen to spend an indefinite amount of time exploring the topic of invasive species is because I truly want us to get it right. Yet I don’t even know that there is a “right.” It seems to me that there are endless trajectories – each one of them addressing different objectives and producing different outcomes. In a way we are playing God, regardless of which approach we take. We are making decisions for nature as if we know what’s best for it or that there even is a “best.”

Humans have had major impacts on virtually every square inch of the planet and have been placing our fingerprints on every ecosystem we touch since long before we became the humans we are today, and so it is difficult for me to envision a planet sans humans. It is also difficult for me to buy into the idea that our planet should look as though humans haven’t touched it (i.e. pristine). Because we have been touching it – for hundreds of thousands of years. Efforts to rewind time to before introductions occurred or to hold an ecosystem in stasis, securing life for only those species that “belong” there, seem noble yet fanciful at best and misguided, arrogant, and fruitless at worst.

To be the best conservationists we can be, we probably need to find a middle ground regarding invasive species – not a deter and eliminate at all costs approach, but also not a complete surrender/all are welcome and all can stay stance. Somewhere in between seems reasonable, acknowledging that the strategy taken will be different every time based on the location, the species in question, and our objectives. Of course, none of my beliefs or opinions on this topic (or any topic for that matter) are fully formed. I am trying to do my best to maintain an open mind, seeking out the best information available and following the evidence where it takes me. A topic as complex as invasion biology, however, is never going to be easy to finalize one’s opinions on, and so this journey will be boundless. I hope you will join me.

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Last but not least, here are two articles that discuss updating our approach to dealing with invasive species:

 

What Shall We Do About Invasive Species?

I think about invasive species a lot. This blog doesn’t really reflect that though. I have been avoiding a deep dive into the subject mainly because there is so much to say about it and I don’t really want this to become “the invasive species blog.” Admittedly, I’m also trying to avoid controversy. Some people have very strong opinions about invasive species, and I don’t always agree. But then an article entitled Taking the long view on the ecological effects of plant invasions appeared in the June 2015 issue of American Journal of Botany. Intrigued by the idea of “taking the long view,” I read the article and decided that now is as good a time as any to start exploring this topic in greater depth.

However, before getting into the article, we should define our terms. “Invasive species” is often used inappropriately to refer to any species that is found outside of its historic native range (i.e. the area in which it evolved to its present form). More appropriate terms for such species are “introduced,” “alien,” “exotic,” “non-native,” and “nonindigenous.” The legal definition of an invasive species (according to the US government) is “an alien species that does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Even though this definition specifically refers to “alien species,” it is possible for native species to behave invasively.

These terms refer not just to plants but to all living organisms. The term “noxious weed,” on the other hand, is specific to plants. A noxious weed is a plant species that has been designated by a Federal, State, or county government as “injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, or property.” A “weed” is simply a plant that, from a human perspective, is growing in the wrong place, and any plant at any point could be determined to be a weed if a human says so. (I’ll have more to say about human arrogance later in the post.)

Rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

The authors of the AJB article (S. Luke Flory and Carla M. D’Antonio) begin by clarifying that “most introduced species are not problematic.” Those that are, however, can “cause significant ecological and economic damage.” This damage is well documented, and it is the reason why billions of dollars are spent every year in the battle against invasive species. But there is a dearth in our research: “less is known about how ecological effects of invasions change over time.” The effects of invasive species could “increase, decrease, or be maintained over decades,” and “multiple community and ecosystem factors” will determine this. For this reason, the authors are calling for “concentrated efforts to quantify the ecological effects of plant invasions over time and the mechanisms that underlie shifting dynamics and impacts.” Armed with this kind of information, managers can better direct their efforts towards invasive species determined to be “the most problematic.”

The authors go on to briefly explain with examples why an invasive species population may decline or be maintained over time, highlighting selected research that demonstrates these phenomena. Research must continue with the aim of improving our understanding of the long term effects of plant invasions. The authors acknowledge that this “will require carefully designed experiments,” “patient and persistent research efforts,” and significant amounts of money. However, they are convinced that through a widespread collaborative effort it can be done. They encourage researchers to deposit data obtained from their research in open source online repositories so that future meta-analyses can be conducted. The information available in these online repositories can be used to develop management plans and help predict “future problematic invasions.”

Considering the amount of time and resources currently spent on confronting invasive species, the approach proposed by the authors of this article is quite reasonable. It seems absurd to continue to battle a problematic species that will ultimately be brought down to more manageable levels by natural causes. It also seems absurd to battle against a species that is essentially here to stay.

Field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

And that brings me to the point in which I make enemies. Take a look at the terms defined earlier. When we talk about introduced species, we are referring to introductions by humans, whether purposeful or accidental. An “alien” species introduced to a new location by wind, water, or animal (other than human) would be considered a natural introduction, right? If that species becomes established in its new location, it would simply be expanding its range. If a human brought it there, again whether purposefully or accidentally, it would be considered an exotic indefinitely.

Humans have been moving species around since long before we became the humans we are today in the same way that a migratory bird might move a species from one continent to another. At what point during our evolution did our act of moving species around become such a terrible thing?

I will concede that our species has become an incredibly widespread species, able to move about the planet in ways that no other species can. We also have technological advances that no other species comes close to matching. In the time that our species has become truly cosmopolitan, the amount of species introductions that we have participated in has increased exponentially. Leaving ecological destruction in our wake is kind of our modus operandi. I don’t want to make excuses for that, but I also don’t see it unfolding any other way. Give any other species the opportunities we had, and they probably would have proceeded in the same manner. Just consider any of the most notorious invasive species today – “opportunist” is their middle name.

More and more, as we are able to see what we have done, we are making efforts to “fix it.” But how de we rewind time? And if we could, when do we rewind back to? And how do we not “ruin it” again? The earth does not have a set baseline or a condition that it is supposed to be in at any given time. The earth just is. It is operating in a state of randomness, just like everything else in the universe. Any idea of how the earth must look at any given time is purely philosophical – conceived of by humans. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to repair the damage, but we should acknowledge that the repairs we’re trying to make are largely for the perpetuation of our own species. Yeah, we’ve developed a soft spot for other species along the way (thankfully), but ultimately we’re just trying to maintain. The earth, on the other hand, would be fine without us.

So, what shall we do about invasive species? I’m not entirely sure. The only thing I’m certain of is that I will continue to ruminate on them and potentially bore you with more blog posts in the future. Until next time…

Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Plant vs. Bike

Summer is drawing to a close in the northern hemisphere. Days are getting shorter. Nights are getting cooler. Fall flowers are beginning to bloom. And bicycles are getting more flat tires.

As an avid bicyclist, I am particularly aware of the waning summer season, especially since I live in a region where Tribulus terrestris is a prevalent weed. Commonly known as puncturevine or goathead, this nuisance plant is the bane of many cyclists’ existence. While the plant itself appears innocent, its fruit is quite the opposite. Rough around the edges and bearing large, rigid spines, puncturevine fruits easily penetrate bike tires, causing flats. They can also result in an uncomfortable experience for the bare-footed.

Native to the Mediterranean region, puncturevine made its way to North America sometime during the European immigration and has since spread across the continent. The fruit of puncturevine is called a bur. Plants with this type of fruit are benefited in two main ways: herbivory deterrent and seed dispersal. The spinyness of the burs deters insects and animals from eating their seeds, and the spines of the burs attach to the feet and fur of animals, etc., aiding in the dispersal of their seeds.

In cool climates, puncturevine is a summer annual. It appears in the heat of the summer, and by late summer the plants have mostly died off, leaving behind hordes of burs, awaiting the arrival of unsuspecting animals, bike tires, and otherwise. The spines of the burs attach themselves to these unsuspecting vicitims and are spread far and wide. The plants typically grow prostrate but can grow upright when they are in shade or being crowded out. They produce large mats that can spread as wide as 6 feet. Their leaves are oppositely oriented and are pinnately compound. Their flowers are small with five bright yellow petals that appear singularly in the axils of leaves. Their fruits are burs that split into 4-5 sections, each containing 1-2 large spines. Their seeds can remain viable for up to 20 years. Puncturevine is a fast growing, drought-tolerant plant with a long, slender taproot. It is commonly found in disturbed sites, along roadways and walkways, and in pastures and fields.

While I am fascinated by this plant, I also abhor it, and so I make an effort to remove and kill it whenever possible. If it weren’t for the countless flat tires it has caused me, I’d probably be more willing to let it be. Bike enthusiasts who have experienced this nuisance nod in agreement.

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Tribulus terrestris looking sweet and innocent

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Close-ups of pretty flowers, interesting leaves, and evil burs

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Bur of puncturevine puncturing bike tire