Plant regulatory officials seek an invasive villain

By Tom Hallman

Congongrass billboardWhen law enforcement sought desperados in the Old West, they turned to one of the most effective tools of their trade: the “Wanted” poster.

Today, with especially desperate criminals, they use a wanted poster about 14 feet tall.

Billboards across South Carolina this year identified the outlaw: Cogongrass, an invasive weed that threatens local ecosystems and poses a significant fire threat.

“It’s a nasty pest, a noxious weed,” said Steve Compton, an environmental health manager with the Department of Plant Industry (DPI), a part of Clemson University’s regulatory division. “The billboards allowed us to show the public precisely what it looks like so they can help us locate it.”

CogongrassCompton and his DPI colleagues recruit volunteers to help identify Cogongrass, an Asian native that had found its way to 12 of South Carolina’s 46 counties, four of which are now free of the pest thanks to Clemson’s eradication efforts.

“Cogongrass choke out even the most hardy native plants,” Compton said. “It can easily displace native plants that are used by birds, animals and insects for forage, host plants and shelter. When its leaves turn brown in the winter, it also can create a substantial fire hazard. This stuff is like gasoline.”

It spreads both through its small seeds and by creeping rootstalks called rhizomes, which can be transported by machines like tilling equipment. Across the South, some surveys have shown it as pervasive as kudzu.

Cogongrass closeup“The economic impact of this pest is extensive,” said Sherry Aultman, who coordinates Clemson’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey program.  “It disrupts native habitats for other vegetation that is food for livestock and wildlife. It interferes with prescribed burns in forestry. Nothing will eat Cogongrass, so it has no benefit whatsoever.”

Clemson maintains a Web site – www.clemson.edu/cafls/cogongrass – with information and a way to report Cogongrass infestations online.

“We want to protect our state from invasive species like Cogongrass that are both economic and ecological threats,” Compton said. “Alert citizens are an important component in keeping us safe.”

But Compton cautions that, unlike many historic wanted posters, the Cogongrass billboards don’t call for citizens to return the villainous vegetation “dead or alive.”

“It’s very difficult to destroy and attempts to do so can wind up spreading it further, so we ask that the public alert us to its presence so that we can effectively eliminate it,” he said. “We want to take special precaution to make certain that when we find it, we eradicate it.”

Learn more about Cogongrass:

www.clemson.edu/cafls/cogongrass

Learn more about the Clemson Invasive Species Program:

www.clemson.edu/invasives