With university training in botanical medicine, I can’t help but harbor fondness for a lot of what my fellow gardeners dismiss as lowly weeds.
Even while prying up China-bound dandelion taproots from my lawn, whacking stampeding stinging nettles and untangling sticky cleavers from the lemon balm, I know that at another time, on another day, I’ll likely seek them out for the healing chemicals stored in their little green hearts.
But some weeds – even some with well-earned reputations as healing herbs – are not only obnoxious nuisances for gardeners, farmers and municipalities, they’re also considered noxious.
Under Washington law, “noxious weed” is a legal term referring to any invasive, non-native plant that threatens the health of local land and aquatic ecosystems, native fish and wildlife habitat or farm crops.
Noxious weeds are invaders that spread rapidly, often through enormous seed dispersals or rhizomatous roots. They can easily out-compete and wipe out the native plants our native animals and fish need to survive and reproduce.
Some noxious weeds, like the bright yellow tansy ragwort that’s very visible right now along the highway, can poison livestock if allowed to spread to nearby pastures and hay fields.
Some of these plants have come here as stowaways in organic matter, on vehicles and boats – and even on people. Sadly, about half of all noxious weeds were brought in by gardeners. Sucked in by their pretty flowers, delicious fruits or uber hardiness, miseries like kudzu, Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry were unleashed on American soil.
The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board classifies noxious weeds into three categories and county noxious weed boards have the mandate to control their spread and to compel landowners to remove them, as they see fit.
A Class A noxious weed is one that has just been discovered here. The aim is to eradicate it before it has a chance to gain a toe hold. Kudzu was found in Clark County in Southwestern Washington in 2001 and eliminated before it could do to us what it’s done to the Deep South. Unfortunately, it’s been spotted in Oregon and still poses a potential threat to our state.
Class B noxious weeds are those that have already gained ground in some counties but are absent in others, such as Herb Robert, Queen Anne’s lace and spurge laurel. The goal is to keep them from spreading any further.
Finally, Class C noxious weeds are ones that have already gotten the better of us. Himalayan and evergreen blackberry, yellow flag and common St. John’s wort are examples of plants that counties may not even attempt to eradicate but instead may try to educate the public on why controlling them is a good idea.
What can gardeners do to help? First, try to remove the worst offenders from your own property, and then volunteer to pull weeds elsewhere in the community. And find out more about what weeds need battling here on Whidbey Island by visiting the Washington State University Island County Extension website at county.wsu.edu and clicking on Noxious Weeds Program in the menu.
Now put down the butterfly bush and yellow archangel and walk away before we all get hurt.