Oregon has begun a giant experiment with giant reed grass, Arundo donax. Over the next few weeks, truckloads of rhizomes will arrive in Morrow County. The rhizomes will be planted on several hundred acres of farmland in the hopes that 20-ft tall canes will someday be a substitute for coal to run the Boardman Power Plant. If successful, this experiment could be an important step toward a sustainable, carbon-neutral energy supply. That would be a very good thing. If it fails, we could have a major ecological problem. That would be a very bad thing.
Giant reed grass is attractive as a source of biomass fuel because it grows fast, like a weed. In fact it is a serious noxious weed in some places, including southern states like California, Texas, and Florida. The Global Invasive Species Database lists Arundo donax as one of the top 100 worst invasive species in the world http://www.issg.org/database/species/search.asp?st=100ss. Interestingl,y giant reed grass plantations are the source of clarinet, oboe, and basson reeds.
Why would anyone plant a known noxious weed? That is a fair question. At the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), we are concerned, but we’re also confident that the test phase can be done in a manner that will allow Portland General Electric (PGE) to assess the fuel potential of this crop while ODA and Oregon State University assess it’s weediness. Oregon is on the edge of the range of this grass. It grows well and becomes invasive in warm, wet habitats. Giant reed grass has been sold as a nursery ornamental in the Pacific Northwest for years. It has also been tested as a crop in Prosser, Washington. It has never become invasive here. At this latitude, it doesn’t flower or produce seed.
We can hope that Oregon is in a zone where giant reed grass will grow under cultivation with human assisstance, but not in the wild where it could be weedy. One good thing about giant reed grass is that it easy to see because it is so tall. So we’re all observers in this experiment. Keep your eyes open. If you see a very tall grass growing most likely in riparian areas, contact us at: 1-866-INVADER or oregoninvasiveshotline.org. Good luck PGE, and good luck Oregon. Roll the dice.