From Cut Flower to Noxious Weed – The Story of Baby’s Breath

One of the most ubiquitous plants in cut flower arrangements hails from the steppes of Turkey and neighboring countries in Europe and Asia. It’s a perennial plant with a deep taproot and a globe-shaped, multi-branched inflorescence loaded with tiny white flowers. In full bloom it looks like a small cloud hovering above the ground. It’s airy appearance earns it the common name baby’s breath, and the attractive and durable nature of its flowers and flower stalks, both fresh and dried, have made it a staple in the floral industry. Sadly, additional traits have led to it becoming a troublesome weed outside of its native range.

baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) via wikimedia commons

Gypsophila paniculata is in the family Caryophyllaceae – sharing this distinction with other cut flowers like carnations and pinks, as well as other weeds like chickweed and soapwort. At maturity and in full bloom, baby’s breath might reach three to four feet tall; however, its thick taproot extends deep into the ground as much as four times its height. Its leaves are unremarkable and sparse, found mostly towards the base of the plant and sometimes with a blue or purplish hue. The flowers are numerous and small, have a sweet scent to them (though not appreciated by everyone), and are pure white (sometimes light purple or pink).

Each flower produces just a few seeds that are black, kidney-shaped, and minuscule. Many of them drop from their fruits and land near their parent plant, but some are retained within their little capsules as the flower stalk dries and becomes brittle. Eventually a stiff breeze knocks the entire inflorescence loose and sends it tumbling across the ground. Its rounded shape makes it an effective tumbleweed, as the remaining seeds are shaken free and scattered far and wide.

baby’s breath flowers close up (via wikimedia commons)

Being a tumbleweed gives it an advantage when it comes to dispersing itself and establishing in new locations, but this is not the only trait that makes baby’s breath a successful weed. Its substantial taproot, tolerance to drought and a variety of soil conditions, and proclivity to grow along roadsides, in ditches, and abandoned fields also make it a formidable opponent. Mowing the plant down does little to stop it, as it grows right back from the crown. Best bets for control are repeated chemical treatments or digging out the top portion of the taproots. Luckily its seeds are fairly short-lived in the soil, so vigilant removal of seedlings and not allowing the plant to reproduce can help keep it in check. Baby’s breath doesn’t persist in regularly disturbed soil, so it’s generally not a problem in locations that are often cultivated like agricultural fields and gardens.

The first introductions of baby’s breath to North America occurred in the 1800’s. It was planted as an ornamental, but it wasn’t long before reports of its weedy nature were being made. One source lists Manitoba in 1887 as the location and year of the first report. It is now found growing wild across North America and is featured in the noxious weed lists in a few states, including Washington and California. It has been a particular problem on sand dunes in northwest Michigan, where it has been so successful in establishing itself that surveys have reported that 80% of all vegetation in certain areas is composed of baby’s breath.

baby’s breath in the wild (via wikimedia commons)

Invading sand dune habitats is particularly problematic because extensive stands of such a deep-rooted plant can over-stabilize the soil in an ecosystem adapted to regular wind disturbance. Plants native to the sand dunes can be negatively affected by the lack of soil movement. One species of particular concern is Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), a federally threatened plant native to sand dunes along the upper Great Lakes. Much of the research on the invasive nature of baby’s breath and its removal comes from research being done in this region.

Among numerous concerns that invasive plants raise are the affects they can have on pollinator activity. Will introduced plants draw pollinators away from native plants or in some other way limit their reproductive success? Or might they help increase the number of pollinators in the area, which in turn could benefit native plants (something known as the magnet species effect)? The flowers of baby’s breath rarely self-pollinate; they require insect visitors to help move their pollen and are highly attractive to pollinating insects. A study published in the International Journal of Plant Sciences found that sand dune sites invaded by baby’s breath attracted significantly more pollinators compared to uninvaded sites, yet this did not result in more pollinator visits to Pitcher’s thistle. According to the researchers, “a reduction in pollinator visitation does not directly translate to a reduction in reproductive success,” but the findings are still a concern when it comes to the future of this threatened thistle.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a plant commonly found in flower arrangements is also an invasive species, as so many of the plants we’ve grown for our own pleasure or use have gone on to cause problems in areas where they’ve been introduced. However, could the demand for this flower actually be a new business opportunity? Noxious weed flower bouquets anyone?

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Field Trip: Bruneau Dunes State Park

One of the aims of American Wetlands Month is to encourage people to get out and visit nearby wetlands. I accepted this challenge by visiting the small lakes and marshes of Bruneau Dunes State Park which is located about 20 miles south of Mountain Home, Idaho (or, 70 miles from my house).

The park is known for its enormous sand dunes, claiming the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America which measures about 470 feet. The dunes began forming about 15,000 years ago during the Bonneville Flood. After the flood receded, the dunes continued to grow due to their unique location – a basin in which strong winds approach from both the northwest and the southeast, carrying sand from the surrounding steppes and keeping the dunes in place.

Two small lakes and a marsh are found nestled among the dunes, and the Snake River flows just north of the park. Apart from the dunes and the wetlands, the park also includes desert and prairie habitats and is situated in an extensive conservation area called Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey. If that’s not enough, Bruneau Dunes State Park is home to a public observatory, where visitors can view the night sky and learn more about the stars and our place in the universe.

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

Climbing the sand dunes (and, if you’re up for it, sledding down them) is understandably a popular activity at the park. I spent a decent amount of time on top of the dunes, partly because the view was great and because the mosquitoes seemed to be absent up there. Yes, when visiting a wetland, you are advised to carry mosquito repellent, otherwise the cloud of mosquitoes that will undoubtedly surround you will make for an unpleasant experience. They will also make it difficult to stand still long enough to take a decent picture.

On top of a small dune looking across lake to large dune.

On top of small dune looking across lake to large dune

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune.

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune

Traversing the spine of a brontosauras (aka sand dune).

Traversing the spine of a brontosaurus (a.k.a. sand dune)

On top of the sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh.

On top of sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh

The marshes and shores around the lakes were populated with numerous wetland plants, including swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata), duckweed (Lemna minuta), cattails (Typha sp.), and various rushes, sedges, and grasses. Native shrubs were also present, however the dominant woody plants were (unfortunately) introduced species: Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and saltcedar (Tamarix chinenesis).

An entrance to the marsh

An entrance to the marsh

Flowers of bullrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Flowers of bulrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia)

Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Despite being there to explore and celebrate the wetland, the plants in the adjacent area (which appeared to be growing in almost 100% sand) continued to draw me away. Some I recognized easily, while others I could only identify to genus or couldn’t identify at all. Some notable observations included low lupine (Lupinus pusillus), sand-dune penstemon (Penstemon acuminatus), pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida), and species in the genera Astragalus, Erigeron, and Eriogonum. Two bunchgrasses were particularly common throughout the area: Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) and needle and thread grass (Hesperostipa comata).

All of these plants are worthy of being photographed; however, the wind makes that difficult to do. Idaho is a windy state, and an area composed of wind-formed sand dunes is particularly windy. Between swarms of mosquitoes and consistent wind, capturing decent photos was a challenge. Aside from those minor nuissances, I had a very enjoyable time and hope to visit again soon.

Phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Have you visited a wetland this month? Or do you plan to? Share your adventures in the comments section below.