Noxious weeds are an equal-opportunity nuisance.
They know no property lines, no income levels, and don’t care if they sprout in a downtown Tacoma alley or Tenino horse pasture.
Consider tansy ragwort, a yellow-flowered weed that can sicken or kill animals that eat it. The plant popped up this spring in Kopachuck Place in Gig Harbor, a high-end housing development that includes million-dollar homes with water views.
A field inspector from Pierce County Noxious Weed Control alerted the development’s home association that the troublesome plant was growing in a common area of the development. Though the association had removed the weed in past years, no one realized it was back again, said Jack Daybell, association president.
“If it starts spreading it does get into peoples’ yards,” Daybell said. “Each one of those plants can spawn hundreds of other plants. ... We’re glad he puts us on notice.”
It’s that time of year for noxious surprises.
Each spring through summer, county weed control inspectors step up their hunt for plants nasty enough to earn state or county designation as a noxious weed.
Noxious weeds are nonnative species that are so aggressive they crowd out native plants, yet have the potential to be significantly reduced or eradicated.
Some threaten crops and clog waterways, while others take over native plants that support wildlife. Many injure or kill animals, including people.
They tend to be more plentiful in urban areas than rural settings, said Rick Johnson, weed coordinator for Thurston County Noxious Weed Control.
Some enter as ornamental plants and escape their homeowners’ yard. Nonnative aquatic plants invade lakes when they’re dumped by people tired of maintaining aquariums or boat owners unaware their vessels harbor plant starts from other waterways.
“The other thing that’s pervasive in cities and urban communities is the land is being constantly developed, realigned or moved,” Johnson said.
Seeds lying dormant underground for decades can germinate as soon as the sunlight hits them. “The one secret to preventing noxious weeds from sprouting is to never have bare soil,” Johnson said.
Interestingly, some plants, such as poison oak which can cause severe rashes, are definitely a nuisance but aren’t considered noxious because they’re native Washingtonians. Meanwhile, some invasive plants, such as dandelions, are so widespread they can never be eliminated so they’re not on the list either.
CLEAN IT UP
When Pierce County inspectors find noxious weeds, they search county records to find the property owner and send written notice that the owner must remove the plant under state law, inspectors said. Since most people don’t know which plants are considered noxious, inspectors generally tie florescent pink surveyor’s tape around several of the offending plants.
In Thurston County, inspectors prefer to provide verbal notice through personal or telephone contact, but send the written notices if they can’t contact the owner, Johnson said.
If property owners don’t remove the noxious weeds within specified timelines, state law allows agencies to hire out the work and charge the owner. Owners can also face fines.
So far this year, Pierce County Noxious Weed Control has issued more than 800 notices of noxious weeds to property owners, including cities and the state, said Beki Shoemaker, coordinator of the Pierce weed agency. Last year, the agency sent more than 1,800 total.
Thurston County’s six weed inspectors have a newly listed noxious weed to hunt this year, an evergreen shrub called spurge laurel in the Grand Mound-Rochester area. It’s toxic to people and animals and threatens the Garry oak tree’s understory habitat.
“We found it everywhere we were looking,” Johnson said. “It will move in and wipe out all the plants, everything that lives under the Garry oak.”
From January through March, the plant’s main growing season, inspectors found 274 infestations. The new weed has helped bump up the overall number of noxious weed infestations to 1,368 so far this year, about 200 more than at the same time last year.
Johnson and Shoemaker stressed that owners typically remove the weeds themselves once they receive notice. Most people are unaware they have noxious weeds. “Our purpose is to educate them and give them strategies and tools to deal with the problem,” said Karen Carnahan, one of eight field inspectors in Pierce County.
Agency staff routinely appear at fairs and community gatherings to sow knowledge about the weeds.
It can be a matter of life and death.
Poison hemlock, a European native with delicate white flowers and foliage that look like carrot leaves, is Pierce and Thurston counties’ second-most prevalent noxious weed, behind tansy ragwort. It’s the weed that killed Greek philosopher Socrates and is the weed suspected in the April 1 death of 55-year-old Sakha Keo.
The Tacoma woman ate hemlock as part of a salad, thinking it was something edible, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office said earlier. The examiner’s office determined June 17 she died of “probable intoxication” after ingesting a toxic substance, but the office won’t release the autopsy report which might say whether the hemlock was the toxin.
“It’s easily mistaken for some food plants. ... It has a long thick taproot a little like a carrot but it’s white. There’s also a wild carrot that looks like it too,” Carnahan said, “only hemlock has purple splotches all the way up the stem, and it has this kind of open, looser white flower.”
In late June, field inspectors showed a reporter multiple stands of poison hemlock blooming across Pierce County. Among the many infestation sites: a gulch across the street from Lakeridge Middle School in Bonney Lake, the yards of several homes in Tacoma’s South End and Hilltop, a tree-lined sidewalk across the street from Holy Rosary Church in Tacoma.
Another nasty weed in evidence: giant hogweed, a prehistoric-looking plant with dinner plate-size leaves and pie-size flowers similar to Queen Anne’s Lace. The plant’s sap acts like a reverse sunscreen, causing second or third-degree burns on skin exposed to the sun.
Field inspector Mary Brzezinski recalled a Tacoma homeowner who dutifully cleared giant hogweed from her yard after receiving a weed-control notice. Despite a handwritten warning to wear protective clothing, the owner got the plant’s sap on her skin and was burned so badly she needed medication for a year.
As she drove with a reporter through her regular rounds in Tacoma, Brzezinski slowed by a house near Tacoma’s Lincoln High School to see if owners of a lot next to the house had removed a giant hogweed stand. The toxic weeds were still there. In the neighboring yard, a grade-school-age boy pushing a bike and a younger girl waving a stick played some 20 feet from the weeds.
It worried Brzezinski, who noted that giant hogweed and poisoned hemlock have hollow stems – a tempting feature for kids who like to blow through the dried stalks and use them as pea shooters. She said she’d issue a second notice to the property owner and keep a close watch on the site.
It’s frustrating when some owners ignore warnings, reasoning that “it’s just a weed,” she said.
“Heaven knows there are so many things in the world going wrong that we have to take heed of,” Brzezinski said. “But something as innocent as a plant can either be lethal or seriously debilitating.
“We’re not talking dandelions here.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694