It takes a weed whacking and comes back faster than any plant around it. The sprawling green stems spread both by seeds and by the root you just left in the ground. It’s a nonnative noxious weed called rush skeletonweed, and it probably has already infested a road ditch or a field near you.
Each year, state and county weed control officials urge, and sometimes demand, that landowners tackle skeletonweed on their property to try to keep it from spreading. It’s been a losing battle, said Tracie Oxford, office manager of the Spokane County Noxious Weed Control Board.
“A lot of weeds have what we call a season. They are bad for certain years and then ebb back and then come around and are bad again,” Oxford said. “This really seems to be the year for skeletonweed.”
According to a state of Washington website, rush skeletonweed was somehow transported to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970s. The plant is native to Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa. In 1988, Washington state officials listed skeletonweed as a Class B noxious weed. That means officials want to do whatever it takes to keep the weed from spreading from its current location.
The plant, which looks like a dandelion when it first sprouts in the spring and fall, prefers the well-drained soils in Eastern Washington. It has spread to thousands of acres across Eastern Washington, particularly in six counties including Spokane, Adams and Stevens.
“A lot of people don’t notice it because it looks like a stem that blends in with the grass,” said Mary Fee, executive secretary for the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. “But when you do see it, it starts standing out to you.”
Because it’s a nonnative species, county and state boards try to compel landowners to work with them to stop its spread.
“If you get a notice from us, that means you have to prevent it from going to seed,” Oxford said. “It’s up to the landowner to decide whatever means they have to cut it, pull it and spray it.”
Hitting a patch of skeletonweed with a mower blade or high-speed string only delays the inevitable and actually could prompt the plant to come back even bigger. Both Oxford and Fee said landowners must mow it six to eight times a season for a decade to finally eradicate it.
And if landowners choose to use herbicides, those chemicals must be applied early when the plant has leaves. Spraying once the plant sprouts its stems reduces the effectiveness of the herbicides, Oxford said.
“Even if you prevent it from going to seed, it spreads mostly underground,” she said. “If you cut off the flowers, you are still not killing the plant because of the very aggressive root system.”
Rush skeletonweed often can be found living among its better-known noxious weed partner-in-crime: spotted knapweed. Both plants can be seen growing together on the undeveloped land on the northwest end of the Monroe Street Bridge in downtown Spokane.
“With knapweed, the plant itself is easy to kill,” Oxford said. “But once the plant goes to seed, it produces thousands of seeds that can lie dormant in the soil for up to 10 years.”
If knapweed is not mowed or pulled before it goes to seed, “you are fighting an uphill battle,” she said. “It wants world domination and it’s going to kill everything around it.”
Fee said the state weed control board does not send out notices to landowners like the county control boards.
“We support the county noxious weed boards in any way we can,” she said. “We offer education and outreach.”
State officials are responsible for putting together the noxious weed list. It has three categories, labeled A, B or C.
“Class A noxious weeds are very limited in distribution,” Fee said. “They are a high priority. We want to make sure they are eradicated.”
Both knapweed and skeletonweed fall under Class B noxious weeds.
“That means we want to control them where they are at … and stop the spread,” she said.
Class C weeds, like the common St. John’s wort, are the last priority. The common St. John’s wort is a yellow flower that grows well on either side of the state, Fee said.
“It’s one that is so widespread … it’s economically unfeasible to try to control statewide,” she said.
The Spokane County weed control board has six inspectors to monitor more than 200,000 private parcels. The board sends out thousands of notices a year and about 300 of those become enforcement actions if the landowners refuse to deal with the noxious weeds, Oxford said.
What becomes an enforcement action “depends on the area, the weed and the history of that landowner,” she said. “If other people are taking care of their property and one is not, those are the ones we want to pay attention to.”
If a landowner refuses to cut his or her weeds, the control board sends in a team to do the work for them.
But, of course, there’s a catch.
“We send them a bill,” Oxford said.
“They have a right to a hearing before our board to contest that if they don’t agree,” she added, but if they don’t pay and their appeal doesn’t work, “we put a lien on their property.”
However, the control board has no such power to compel city, county or state officials to tackle noxious weeds on publicly owned land, she said.
“We send those same notices to the city, county and state,” Oxford said. “If they do it, great, but we don’t have a lot of ability to force them to do it. We can yell and scream and push and pull. That’s not fair to the private landowner.
“I can’t tell you how many complaints we get about the public right of ways. There are just weeds everywhere. We notify the county and they respond. But if they don’t, there is not a lot we can do about it.”
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