Noxious weed could hold key to killing noxious weeds
SUMMIT COUNTY – County weed control coordinator Paul Schreiner can’t wait for the day he can use chemicals derived from noxious weeds to kill other non-native weeds.
That day just got a little closer.
Researchers recently isolated a chemical called catechin from spotted knapweed, a noxious weed that has taken over millions of acres in the West, Schreiner said. Its secret lies in the chemical it emits to keep other weeds at bay and ensure its own success. Researchers now hope to develop an herbicide using the chemical composition of catechin.
“They’ve got a lot of tricks up their sleeves,” Schreiner said of noxious weeds. “They’re kind of like Al Capone moving in to take over a little town; the little town isn’t going to have a chance. They’re poised for mass explosion.”
Spotted knapweed is one of about a dozen noxious weeds that have gained a toehold in Summit County. Noxious weeds edge out native plant species because they often have no native predators in their new habitat. Once a native plant has been removed from the ecosystem, insects, birds and other animals tend to follow, leaving a monoculture in their stead.
Millions of acres have been taken over by noxious weeds in the West, and scores of native plants have become extinct or reached the stage where they are endangered. Twelve species in Colorado are now extinct, and an estimated 10 percent of Colorado’s native species have been edged out by noxious weeds, Schreiner said.
“We’re at the apex right now,” he said. “We have the ability to make a difference, to keep these plants in check. Look at Douglas County: It’s overrun by diffuse knapweed. They don’t have a prayer. But with our geographic barriers, the altitude, the weather, we have a chance to keep Summit County looking like Summit County.”
Ironically, a noxious weed might be what provides the key to the next breakthrough.
Scientists always suspected spotted knapweed emitted something to give it the extra boost it needed to get ahead in the plant world.
“We just haven’t been able to put our hands on it,” Schreiner said. “It’s an age-old problem, but a new field. I’m pretty excited about the news.”
It will be a long time before an herbicide incorporating catechin or a laboratory-generated chemical like it is made available, however. Researchers are hoping for three years. Schreiner thinks it will be closer to eight or 10.
“The herbicide trade is tested second only to the pharmaceutical trade in the U.S.” he said. “It has to be tested and tested and tested. I’d be real surprised to see this out on the open market in less than eight years. It certainly might be produced and studied, but I don’t see it released in the market for quite some time.”
Knapweed traditionally isn’t thought of as a useful plant. Many farmers and ranchers throughout the West have reported getting tumors in their finger joints after pulling the weed by hand.
But if the weed has practical commercial applications, Schreiner is all for it.
“We need to be doing more of this,” Schreiner said of the research. “Look at how much the Forest Service spends on fire suppression in a year – it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet fire is a natural thing in our ecosystem. And then we look at resources that are put into invasive plants, and it’s just a drop in the bucket. Yet they’re a bigger problem ecologically than fire ever will be. But this is a step in the right direction.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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