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Great Lakes Article:

Purple plant proves problematic

Loosestrife invades state wetlands

By Elizabeth Grekso
of the Northwestern
08/08/2002

GREEN LAKE -- Dave Burbach is working to make sure a growing problem with purple loosestrife is kept in check.

“The typical cutting, burning and flooding just doesn’t control the spread,” said Burbach, who has been working for about five years to prevent the marshland-constricting growth of the plant.

Burbach founded and participated in this week’s annual Purple Loosestrife Eradication Day, which included about two hours of cutting off the tops of the plants around Big Green Lake and spreading small amounts of herbicide. The workers cut off about two truckloads of plants, but the effort was small compared with the statewide spread of the plant.

The plant has overtaken about 40,000 acres of wetlands around the northeastern United States and Canada.

The loosestrife first came to this country from Europe in the early 1800s when immigrants transported it to plant in gardens.

It blossomed and expanded outside those gardens, and now it has spread to the point that the Wisconsin Wetlands Association has been sending out volunteers to track the plant’s invasion across more than a dozen counties.

In Europe, the plant’s growth was controlled because it had natural predators, but none was present in this country.

The plants can be found in marshes, wet meadows, shorelines and roadside ditches, and each plant releases about 2 million seeds per year.

“It squeezes out the natives and it rules,” said Charlie Marks, administrator of the Green Lake Sanitary District, which is one of the sponsors of the annual eradication day.

He said the yearly plant cutting is held to hinder some of the plant’s growth but more so to raise awareness of the plant’s invasiveness. “It’s almost symbolic,” Marks said.

Marks said he is not trying to destroy the invasive purple plant, and he doesn’t think he could if he tried. Marks said he is hoping to help the Green Lake area ecosystem find a little balance.

The sheer volume of loosestrife plants is not the only problem -- its roots too are invasive as they spread out underground and crowd out other plants.

Burbach said there are no known species that have been irreparably harmed by the plant. But if the spread of loosestrife is left unchecked, he is unsure how extensive the problem could become.

“If we’re going to control it, it’s going to be by natural measures,” Burbach said.

The growing problem has led to the slow, limited introduction of the Galerucella calmarensis beetle. The tiny beetle feeds only on loosestrife and lays its eggs on the leaves.

When the beetles were first introduced to the area ecosystem, many died during the first winter -- leading to Burbach’s cultivation of the beetles to increase their numbers.

Each year, Burbach brings some of the plants into a controlled environment and releases the beetles onto the plants. The beetles then reproduce before Burbach and his students at Markesan High School take them out to the wetlands and place them on the plants. Burbach teaches biology and chemistry at the school.

Burbach said the Department of Natural Resources has studied the beetle and its effects, and doesn’t foresee any harm coming from the limited use. Burbach takes his environmental efforts into the classroom, teaching his students about loosestrife as well as the dangers of other non-indigenous species such as the zebra mussel.

Billy Klitz is one of Burbach’s students and a member of his school’s Environmentalists Club. Klitz estimated he helped bag about 300 of the invasive plants Monday. Although some call the eradication day a symbolic effort, Klitz said it was more.

“We made a difference today, at least in this area,” Klitz said.

Elizabeth Grekso: (920) 426-6656 or egrekso@smgpo.gannett.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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