Next time you hear that word,run for your life. Or more precisely, the life of your lawn.
story by Sonny Brewer and photography by George Fuller
An insidious invader came to this country a stowaway on ships and cargo, silently escaped detection at the docks in Mobile, and now threatens great danger across our Southern landscapes. It’s name, Cogon, appropriately rhymes with shogun, because the threat originated in Japan. We’re talking about an invasive plant species called cogongrass that entered Alabama in 1911 as packing material from that country.
Back then, it seemed a good enough idea to the Japanese, I guess, to pack satsumas in crates protected by this dry straw that was wiry and tough as shogun warriors. And if you look these guys up, Google images portrays fierce-faced warriors with evil eyes and long swords and suited up in enough heavy battle gear to break the scales at an interstate weigh station.
When the cogongrass story idea was presented to me, I was, like, is this about lawns? I’m not a reliable groundskeeper and immediately imagined some yard-of-the-month drama that would not capture my interest. I couldn’t have been more off-base. Although, George Fuller, our editor of Portico Eastern Shore, has been battling an infestation on his lawn for three years.
Turns out, this cogongrass is “very aggressive” and its threat re-grows year after year. In the soil, we’re looking at a sort of mat of rhizomes, a thick, tangled system of elongated tuber-like things that are really horizontal stems of the cogongrass, with roots dropping down below and shoots heading upward toward the sun.
My daughter called me to help her dig up some bamboo, my first up-close-and-personal encounter with what an impossible foe a rhizome system can be. I thought my shovel had found a lattice of cross-thatched rebar from some abandoned construction site. Cogongrass rhizomes are just as impenetrable. No wonder the Nature Conservancy warns, “Successful eradication is achieved with multiple herbicide treatments over several years.”
And that aggressive bit? Rhizomes have razor-like daggers that pierce the roots of other plants. Like those shogun warriors, they slice and dice their competition. And if cogongrass rhizomes are unearthed, they can injure a person’s bare feet, or pose a hazard to human hands working the soil unprotected.
The USDA reports that cogongrass “thrives where fire is a regular occurrence. It is highly flammable and creates a severe fire hazard.” It burns extremely hot, especially in winter when it stands tall while native grasses are dormant and closer to soil level, and the fire’s intensity can kill seedling trees and native plants. It’s not a long leap to imagine what it would mean to homeowners should a blanketing crop of cogongrass surround a populated area. Its potential for destruction earns cogongrass the infamous reputation as the world’s seventh-worst weed.
“Following initial invasion,” the science goes,“ cogongrass (imperata cylindrica, L.) often forms dense, field-like monocultures.” That means it takes over the neighborhood, and lets nothing else move in. Dense stands of cogongrass can also destroy wildlife habitat, chasing away animals and upsetting that delicate balance of predator and prey. And its neighborhood of choice is some 500 million acres the world over, though it doesn’t tolerate the cold. In the U.S., its territory extends northward only to South Carolina.
Cogongrass spreads like a super-contagious strain of the flu. Its seeds resemble a dandelion’s, and it’s quickly disseminated on the wind. Or, for instance, mowing fields of hay. It can even be spread by farming tools that have come in contact with the rhizomes. Another very common way of spreading cogongrass is along ALDOT right-of-ways where the mowers strow the seeds from the Bush Hog decks.
But cogongrass must have some good traits,right? I mean, even our mythical Southern icon kudzu is reported to yield delicious purple honey that smells like Kool-Aid. No tribe of Native Americans had a word that corresponds to weed ,as in some noxious plant. They had no concept of something that grew from God’s green earth that didn’t belong. That’s because before strange, white humans invaded tribal lands, there was no chance some foreign plant would just show up out of the blue.
But if cogongrass, which cattle cannot eat because of its high silica content, had been over taking grazing lands of the buffalo they depended upon for food and clothing, the language of indigenous peoples would have reflected such a threat. And cogongrass is such evil stuff that goats won’t even eat it. And goats will eat damn near anything.
Mac Walcott, local architect and farmer of his sixty-five acres on Fish River, had a patch of cogongrass appear in the corner of one of his fields. “And after fifteen seasons of grazing and crops, it’s now down to a small patch, just waiting to erupt again,” Mac says. “I am also fascinated by the narratives surrounding invasive species,” he adds. “When you think about it, the crime may not be the plant, but the human interventions before and after we came to know the plant. What’s more invasive, suburban sprawl or a popcorn tree?”
Cogongrass, though, is high on the un-wanted list. And when detectives are on the trail of criminals, it’s a common practice to “follow the money” to get a clear picture of what’s going on. Very few of Portico’s readers work farmlands on thousand-acre fields raising the food we eat, and might wonder just how concerned they should be in a suburban setting. But if we follow the money, we see how the huge price tag for this invasion of cogongrass is shared to taxpayers and consumers. The impact of the billions of dollars spent trying to contain and control cogongrass comes into better focus.
The first three people I mentioned this article to all knew about cogongrass. Where have I been? And I was very interested to inquire of Yael Girard, executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, was this invasive plant any trouble to their operations. Of course, it was.
“Cogongrass is something we battle constantly,” Yael says. “Almost every property we look at for conservation has at least a small patch. Pretty quickly, that little group of stems can turn into a full-on infestation. And, what’s worse is when you try to burn it, you better prepare for an inferno. I’ve seen fifteen-foot flames from two-foot high cogongrass.” She adds that such hot fires can be extremely damaging to the delicate native plants that a controlled burn hopes to encourage.
Martin Lanaux, who is a bibliophile and lover of literature, was raised on a family tung oil plantation in Tangipahoa parish in Louisiana and has never lost sight of the critical need and passion to steward the out-of-doors. He asked me if I understood the bladerunner aspect of cogongrass. I said I did not. “I’ll leave it up to you to do some research,” he says.
Fewer than five minutes online, and here’s what I found at The Verge: “In The bladerunner set in a future New York … an epidemic of deadly meningitis hits the city –and because it starts as a mild flu, nobody’s willing to get treated until it’s too late. It’s up to bladerunners to spread the word and save the city…. The boldface is my own. The message to not ignore the invasion of cogongrass is for everyone.
One more thing about exotic plants from nurseries. We’re asked to “read the label” to learn for ourselves what’s in food that’s not good for us. Same with the plants we buy. There’s not a skull-and-crossbones warning about invasive plants. If it’s labeled exotic, or non-native, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be one of the bad guys.
On the other hand, promises like, “This exotic plant is a hybrid variety and all its invasive genes have been eliminated.” Not necessarily true. Research finds plants have a mind of their own,so to speak, and within a few generations can morph back into an invasive threat. It’s a start to at least be aware that what you read is often not the last word. And an agreement with yourself to keep informed about what’s good for what’s green and growing outside. There are many native alternatives that are far better adapted to our climate, pests, and soils that won’t ever cause you heartache down the road.