Friday, March 18, 2011

Oregon Gambles with Giant Reed Grass

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  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 Good luck PGE, and good luck Oregon. Roll the dice.

Dan Hilburn

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sterile Butterfly Bush Coming This Spring

Ten new varieties of sterile butterfly bush have been tested and approved. They’ll be available in garden centers in Oregon this spring. I’m going to buy some. They are handsome plants with long flowering periods, and they produce little or no seed. Plant breeders have succeeded in enhancing the desirable features of butterfly bush while eliminating it’s potential to be a noxious weed. Hallelujah!

I suspect gardeners are going to flock to these new varieties like butterflies to the flowers. The pictures are gorgeous, and the plants are more compact with shorter stems and bigger flower clusters.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) developed a process in which nurseries can have their varieties evaluated. A 98 percent reduction in fertility is required for approval. The table below shows data for the most recent batch evaluated for Ball Ornamentals. The varieties in bold meet Oregon’s sterility standard. All of the approved varieties are complex interspecific hybrids--in other words, they can’t revert to the original species, Buddleia davidii, that has been the cause of so much concern in the past.
Mean fertility of control (fertile) cultivars was 7.32 seeds per capsule. The fertility reported for each cultivar is its relative fertility compared to 7.32 seeds per capsule. Cultivars in bold italics are exempt based on 98% reduction in fertility.

Cultivar                                                                                % Fertility          
FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Blueberry Cobbler Nectar Bush                0
FLUTTERBY PETITE™  Lavender Nectar Bush                                   9.0
FLUTTERBY™ Peace Nectar Bush                                                122
FLUTTERBY™ Pink Nectar Bush                                                  2.0
FLUTTERBY™ Lavender Nectar Bush                                             50
FLUTTERBY PETITE™ Dark Pink Nectar Bush                                  13.1
FLUTTERBY PETITE™ Snow White Nectar Bush                           0.4
FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Peach Cobbler Nectar Bush                     0
FLUTTERBY PETITE™ Blue Heaven Nectar Bush                               5.6
FLUTTERBY™ Mauve Pink Nectar Bush                                           5.9
FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Tangerine Dream Nectar Bush                0.4
FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Sweet Marmalade Nectar Bush               0
FLUTTERBY PETITE™  Tutti Fruitti Pink Nectar Bush                       4.6 
FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Vanilla Nectar Bush                               0
More sterile varieties are in the pipeline, and there should be plenty of choice for gardeners in the future. You can find the complete list of the approved varieties at:

Breeding out invasiveness is a new concept; I hope it catches on. There are quite a number of other ornamental plants that have weedy tendencies. If would be nice if gardeners could enjoy them now without causing noxious weed problems for future generations.

Dan Hilburn

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On the Edge of Firewood Regulation

If a trees dies in your yard, what do you do? Chances are good, you would cut it up for firewood. Chances are not good most people would recognize the risk of spreading invasive species via that firewood.

Trees die for many reasons, but recently non-native invasive pests have been killing trees in some parts of the country. Ash trees are being killed in midwestern states by emerald ash borer, maple trees are dying from Asian longhorned beetle in Massachusetts, black walnuts are threatened by thousand canker disease, and closer to home, sudden oak death is killing tanoaks in Curry County and the coastal areas of California. These examples are the worst of a whole gallery of invasive pests attacking trees.

We humans inadvertantly make the problem worse by packing our firewood when we go camping. A quick look at the current distribution of emerald ash borer highlights the problem In the middle of the map, you can see the general infestation centered on Michigan. This infestation spreads at less than 20 miles per year through natural dispersal of the beetles.

The outlier sites in New York, Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are the result of people moving infested wood. Uninformed campers bringing wood with live bugs in it are a big part of the problem. Last summer, infested firewood was intercepted at a California border station from a camper leaving Oregon. Their homebase was Michigan, and they had brought their firewood with them!

Trees are one of our biggest assests in Oregon. We’ve got to protect them. The Oregon Invasive Species Council (OISC) has two related initiatives. They are in the second year of a regional outreach and education campaign to encourage people to buy and burn local firewood. Hopefully, you’ve seen the billboards and/or posters. We’re lucky to have plenty of local firewood available locally; we don’t need to pack it.

The OISC is also shepherding a bill in the Oregon legislature (HB 2122) to regulate firewood imported from out-of-state. Much of the commercial firewood sold in this country comes from distant sources. Check the labels the next time you’re at a store that sells firewood bundles. If the bill passes, out-of-state firewood would have to be labeled and heat treated to eliminate potential pests before being sold in Oregon. This week, the bill crossed its first hurdle by unanimously passing out of the House Agriculture committee with a “Do Pass” recommendation.

Most of the discussion during the committee hearings centered on how to handle issues along Oregon’s border. Regulations generally have geographic boundaries. It can be awkward and difficult to enforce regulations along geographic boundaries. For instance, what if you live in Hood River, Oregon, and your friend offers you free firewood from their woodlot in White Salmon, Washington. Would that wood have to be heat-treated and labeled to legally enter the state of Oregon?

A strict interpretation of the bill would indicate that treatment/labeling would be required, but there is a prevision in the law for exemptions. It says: “The department may adopt rules for exempting casual retail sales of firewood by priviate individuals. . .” This is important as it would allow us to deal with real-world situations along Oregon’s borders where “buy local, burn local” might include the states of Washington and Idaho. Common sense and regulation are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If this bill passes, we’ll have to keep in mind during rulemaking that the purpose of the law is to prevent long distance transport of untreated/unlabeled firewood.

There will be another chance for public testimony on HB 2122 soon . If you’d like to provide comments, you’ll have a chance when the bill is heard by the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee. To date, only the OISC and Oregon Department of Agriculture have provided testimony on the bill. Other agencies and lobbyists have been watching from the sidelines. It would be nice to have more support. The next hearing hasn’t been posted yet, but it will probably be in early March. You can follow committee agendas online at

We’ve also got to get better at keeping invasive species out of North America in the first place, but that is a national issue and the subject for another blog.

Dan Hilburn