Pretty little invaders

MARQUETTE – It’s natural hikers want to enjoy their treks on the trail, watching wildlife and soaking in the scenery. However, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable were their trails overrun with garlic mustard and spotted knapweed.

To help foster stewardship of one of the local outdoor jewels – the North Country National Scenic Trail – Teri Grout, executive director of the Alger Conservation District, gave a talk Tuesday at the Peter White Public Library entitled “Boots on the Trail, Eyes on Invasives.”

The North Country National Scenic Trail spans 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota, running through Marquette and marked by blue blazes.

Grout, also a member of the North Country Trail Hikers chapter of the North Country Trail Association, discussed common invasive plants that, unfortunately, proliferate in the area.

Invasives take over an area because they have no natural suppression, unlike in their native habitats. Often they were brought to the United States as ornamentals, but then got out of hand.

One common invasive plant is the culinary-sounding garlic mustard.

“It’s perfectly edible,” Grout said. “It tastes delicious. It tastes like garlic.”

However, the plant wreaks havoc on the ecosystem, choking out the forest understory, she said, which can damage a forest-based economy.

The trick to eradicating plants is to pull them when they’re small, and garlic mustard is no exception, Grout said.

“The idea is early detection, rapid response,” she said. “And you guys are the boots on the ground.”

Garlic mustard shows up in its first year as numerous, tiny rosettes on the ground, and once established, its four-petaled white flowers bloom from May to June in sun or shade, according to Grout. It’s common along the Dead River, the Iron Ore Heritage Trail and the Au Train Basin.

There is good news about eradicating this invasive plant, Grout said.

“Garlic mustard is easy to pull,” she said. “It has a shallow root system and comes out very easily.”

The trick, Grout stressed, is to pull the second-year plants before they go to seed, keeping in mind they should not be composted because seed still can spread.

Another problematic plant is spotted knapweed. Grout said grant dollars aren’t flowing in to combat this widespread plant because many people believe it’s a lost cause.

“Once you see it flower, it will do anything in its power to put all of its energy into making seed,” Grout explained.

Knapweed roots also exude a chemical that impedes the growth of nearby plants, thus allowing it to rule a landscape if left unchecked, she said.

Letting spotted knapweed go to seed probably isn’t in the best environmental interests, but either is ignoring the problem. Grout cautioned a chemical in its stems can irritate skin, so anyone pulling knapweed should wear gloves.

Another insidious plant – at least in the Upper Peninsula – is the wild parsnip, a tall plant with yellow umbrella-like flowerheads that Grout said is particularly common on M-28 on the way to Grand Marais.

It’s also phototoxic.

“If you get it on your skin and it gets exposed to sunlight, you’ll get blisters and you’ll wish you had poison ivy,” Grout said.

Giant hogweed is found in the Ottawa National Forest, according to Grout, but hasn’t spread locally yet. However, that’s not to say it won’t make it here, and hikers who spot the plant should notify professionals of its existence.

“This is one we really want you to keep an eye out for,” Grout told the group.

The wetland plant called purple loosestrife is especially tough to eradicate, Grout said, because of its hard-to-dig-up roots, with 80 percent of its biomass underground. Big clippers, therefore, are in order.

“If you can do nothing else but keeping it from producing seed,” Grout said, “you’re doing the environment a big favor.”

There are many more invasive plants threatening the area, such as leafy spurge, dame’s rocket, glossy and common buckthorn, Eurasian milfoil, forget-me-not, houndstongue, Japanese barberry, non-native honeysuckle, certain thistles, periwinkle, phragmites, sweet clover and Japanese knotweed.

That might sound overwhelming, but hikers can make a difference. Grout advised them to carry a GPS unit, or if one isn’t available, to mark the site of an invasive plant with a flag and report it to the local conservation district. Pulling individual plants is an option, but an infestation is another matter, and again the conservation district is the place to contact, she said.

Upon seeing invasive plants, Grout said, hikers should avoid walking through it to prevent the spread of seeds. After leaving an area, they should brush their shoes and cuffs, also to prevent the further distribution of seeds.

Catherine Sromek, who interned with the Alger Conservation District, said awareness of invasives is key, and more people need to be proactive.

“It’s not a huge problem,” Sromek said, “but it’s getting there.”

Grout said the invasive plants are OK in their native habitats.

“There is no such thing as an ‘evil plant,'” she said.

However, once they take over a new area, the problems are evident.

Lorana Jinkerson, NCTH chapter president, said, “It is important for hikers to watch for and report invasives they see along the trail so the conservation districts have an accurate census of where various species are showing up. The conservation districts, do not have the manpower to cover as much ground as it would take, so all eyes, even from recreational hikers, becomes crucial to them.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.