Our Earth: Purple beauty —or beast?

Have you been wondering what the clumps of attractive purple flowers are that you’ve been seeing along roadsides and wet areas? It is probably purple loosestrife, a quite attractive plant. However, beneath this superficial beauty lies an aggressive, untamable beast. If left uncontrolled, purple loosestrife will take over our remaining wetlands out-competing native species upon which so many wildlife species, including insects, depend.

Native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was speculated to be first introduced to the United States from colonial settlers as ship ballast was unloaded from their sailing ships. Additionally, horticulturists imported seeds for landscaping and gardens.

Purple loosestrife grows in dense stands along waterways and wetlands, choking out native wetland species. Thick growth can reduce water flow by clogging drainage ditches. With a seed production as high as 2 million per plant, the ability to reproduce from fragments of its stem, and a high tolerance to water and variability to soils it has spread across most of the United States even right here in River City in the Muskingum River Valley.

Friends of Lower Muskingum River have been working to try to control this invasive species but it is a challenge. If you would like to join the effort, please call our office at 373-4170. There are patches scattered along the Muskingum gaining a foothold. If you know of a patch, please call the above phone number to report the location. Once established, an individual plant can often live as long as 20 years – math isn’t difficult: at a possibility of 2 million seeds per year over 20 years….each plant removed really can make a difference.

Showy magenta to purplish flowers with five to seven petals on long 4 to 18 inch spikes makes this an easy plant to identify from July to September. Leaves are attached to the stem in sets of two or three. Stems typically have four or six sides and are slightly hairy. In the fall, leaves turn vibrant red in color. Plants may have up to 50 stems of up to 8 feet tall (but more likely in the 3 to 4 foot range), with the whole plant sometimes as wide as 5 feet. No other wetland plants will create dense stands and have purplish flowers.

Ohio regulations prohibit the sale of purple loosestrife without a special permit from the Director of the Department of Agriculture. Although some sterile varieties of purple loosestrife are available, they often produce viable seeds when cross pollinated with other cultivars. If the look of purple loosestrife is what you want for your landscape, play it safe and consider using these native alternatives: Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), swamp verbena (Verbena hastata), joe-pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), and cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Visit the Appalachian Ohio Weed Control Partnership blog, www.appalachianohioweeds.org for more information on purple loosestrife and other invasive plant species.

If you are interested in volunteering to map purple loosestrife this summer or have any additional questions contact Eric Boyda at appalachianohioweeds@gmail.com or 740-534-6578.