Scotch broom, that pesky noxious weed, carries an economic cost

April 27, 2011 

In the late nineteenth century, a little town in New Hampshire high in the White Mountains, suddenly became home to dozens of grand hotels, packed with tourists all drawn there by the one thing the town didn't have. It had no ragweed.

The town was called Paradise by some of its visitors, because they were able to breathe there, something they couldn’t do in their own homes during allergy season in those days.

I think of this town every year around this time when the Scotch broom blooms. You know Scotch broom, I’m sure. Its brilliant yellow flowers nod to us as we travel Interstate 5, and Highway 101, and many local roads.

Although it’s not an allergen (it’s the grasses and trees that bloom at the same time that cause local misery), I see broom as analogous to ragweed. Those grand hotels are all gone now, a victim of, among other factors, poor land control: ragweed got a foothold. The economic cost to the area was devastating.

Today, ragweed causes about $3 billion in economic losses nationally.

Scotch broom also carries an enormous economic cost. In Oregon and Washington alone, it causes around $100 million in agricultural and forestry losses, an enormous price to pay for some pleasant yellow flowers.

Broom is a Class B noxious weed in Washington. In Thurston County, that means landowners must control its spread. That means pulling, cutting, or otherwise destroying any plants on your property.

In moist soil, pull the entire plant out by its roots. In dry soil, cut the plant off near the ground. It’s critical to do this before seed pods form. As long as there are no seed pods, you can compost them, put them in yard waste cans, or take them to the transfer station. If they have pods, you can pile them in a corner of your land and let them rot – just monitor them for new sprouts.

Are these efforts worth it?

You bet. Just one landowner letting broom get a foothold can infest an entire neighborhood. When we bought our house in Olympia, the three-quarters acre lot was pockmarked with broom. I spent an afternoon hand-pulling every plant, much to the relief of my neighbors. That neighborhood is still free of broom.

And I must say, one of my favorite aspects of living here is the absence of ragweed.

But Scotch broom and ragweed are only the beginning.

Any plant, no matter how beautiful, can turn into a noxious weed, an invasive species, if it is left to flourish in an area where it cannot be controlled. Even those fresh, innocent oxeye daisies are a Class B noxious weed here in Thurston County. Invasive species form monocultures, dense colonies that prevent other plants from growing, crowding out more valuable or more desirable plants. Some – including broom – are poisonous to animals and people.

We can’t pull over on I-5 to kill the broom, but we can monitor our neighborhoods. We can find out who owns the empty lot at the end of the road and get permission to clear it. We can join the efforts of broom removal at the Mima Mounds on May 14. We can check the web for information on other noxious weeds in our area, and act on the information.

Thurston County (www.co.thurston.wa.us/tcweeds) updates its list of noxious weeds every year. There, you can find more information on controlling plants and insects that do more harm than good to the South Sound area.

And if you see any ragweed infiltrating the area, do me a favor and yank it out.

Chris Madsen, a software developer and writer who moved to Olympia six years ago from Maine, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at cetmadsen@gmail.com.

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