CAVE JUNCTION, Ore. (AP) — More than 20 years ago, it was touted as a miracle plant — a “hyperaccumulator” able to pull heavy metals, such as nickel, out of the area’s serpentine soil and store it in its leaves.
At least that’s what was told to then-county commissioners who approved planting of yellow-tuft alyssum on eight plots, totaling more than 50 acres in the Illinois Valley.
Now the flowering invasive weed has traveled up and down the Illinois River and is considered a menace that’s keeping local volunteers on their toes trying to control and eradicate the invasive, self-pollinating, perennial plant.
Volunteers Gordon Lyford, Scott Taylor and Wes Brown recently received the Oregon Invasive Species Council’s Ten Fingers in the Dike award for their efforts to coordinate the Alyssum Eradication Task Force and keep the plant at bay. The three regularly pull and destroy alyssum plants that grow at the Illinois Valley Airport and other locations in southwest Josephine County.
The area is known for its bounty of beautiful native wildflowers, many of which are endangered by the invasive alyssum.
“I like wildflowers, but the alyssum crowds them out,” Taylor said, between pulling clumps of alyssum with Lyford on a recent afternoon trek through the airport grounds.
In addition to being a co-owner of Taylor’s Sausage in Cave Junction, Taylor is a private pilot and spends a lot of time at the airport.
Much of that time is taken up with noxious weed eradication efforts, since alyssum grows and seeds throughout the year. Some plants are a few inches tall, others nearly three feet tall.
Lyford said there are many reasons to get rid of the plant.
“It’s a non-native, opportunist plant and will take over, not to mention, it is toxic to livestock. I’ve heard two bulls died from eating it,” he said.
The plants’ variation of heights when ready to drop seeds is one reason it is difficult to harvest or eradicate alyssum, said Larry Graves, Josephine County airport manager.
Alyssum is a member of the mustard family and native to Turkey and elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast.
Although many objected to the county’s decision to plant alyssum, a previous airport manager OK’d the plan, Lyford said.
Graves has been the county’s airport manager for the past four years, and inherited the “unfortunate situation,” he said.
When he came on board, there were piles of the pulled plants stacked in an area at the airport, which, according to Lyford, had sat there for 8 to 10 years.
Lyford tells a tale of how difficult it is to destroy the plants.
“We burned (the stacked plants) four years ago in October. In the spring, there were alyssum germinated in the black ashes. They survived the fire,” he said.
The county isn’t on its own, however, to eradicate alyssum.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has taken the lead, coordinating the task force and performing helicopter surveys to locate patches and escapees, single plants that have strayed to neighboring locations, said Carri Pirosko, the region’s noxious weed coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Although it may seem difficult at first glance to distinguish the weed from other yellow wild flowers, the structure of the plant, which has a more rigid stem so it doesn’t sway in the wind like many other flowering plants, makes it fairly easy to spot from the air, Pirosko explained.
An upcoming helicopter survey is planned in the Illinois Valley on June 16.
Pirosko said her department uses two methods to eradicate alyssum — manual volunteer efforts and with chemicals. Manually pulling and destroying the plants is the preferred method, she said.
She calls Taylor, Lyford and Brown some of the “extraordinary volunteers” involved in the eradication effort. But, there are several other local volunteers also involved.
Pirosko said an alyssum pulling party last week on private property near the airport yielded more than 600 of the plants.
Two species of alyssum were planted in the Illinois Valley, murale and corsicum. Both are difficult to destroy, but they are also listed as A-level noxious weeds because there is a chance of eradicating them, with enough effort.
The common name “yellow tuft” refers to two both Alyssum murale and A. corsicum. Originally from eastern Europe, these two mustards were planted in the Illinois Valley for phytomining — a process in which plants that accumulate high amounts of metals are used to extract these materials from the soil.
The major difference in the look of the two weeds is the stem. Murale has a red, speckled stem, and corsicum has a carrot-like corkscrew root, Lyford described, as he held out two of the plants, being careful so as not to allow the gentle breeze at the airport carry away any of the tops of the plants.
Volunteers pulling the plants generally change shoes or boots upon entering and leaving the sites where alyssum grows, so as not to transport parts of the plants on their feet.
That was especially important in recent years, when a fence was built around the airport, since it would have been easy to transport seeds from the Illinois Valley to elsewhere across the state, had officials not had contractors decontaminate heavy equipment on a daily basis, Graves said.
Though it is a daily struggle to destroy the weed, the escapees are the biggest problem, according to Lyford.
“The goal is to not have any seeds in the ground, but they just keep coming,” Lyford said.
“It’s like a big metal spring, we’ve pushed that spring down, but we can’t let it back up. We’ll declare it eradicated five years after you don’t find one plant. But, that five years hasn’t started yet,” he said.