Invasive plant threatens Trail wetland

Often a plant is first cultivated in a private garden for its exotic appeal, but once it hops the fence, its spread can be quick and devastating – especially if it’s a foreigner.

Policeman’s helmet (Impatiens glandulifera) is an escaped garden ornamental that is creeping through and overtaking wetlands and riparian areas of the Kootenays.

In Trail, the plant is threatening the Oasis Wetlands near Teck Operations.

Originally from the Kashmir province of India, the plant was brought to Europe and arrived in the Kootenays over 100 years ago as a decorative flower for someone’s garden.

“In Europe, they are such a big problem, they’ve decimated over 40 per cent of their wetlands,” said Jen Vogel, coordinator of the Central Kootenay invasive plant committee.

Greg Wiesner first noticed the plant on his Oasis property when he bought his Hannah Drive home 11 years ago.

“All I knew it was a plant with pretty pink flowers,” said Wiesner.

He wasn’t worried until Vogel informed him of its invasive nature and that the plant was indeed moving rapidly down the bank, towards the wetlands on Teck property.

With Wiesner’s approval and help, Vogel organized a “Communities Pulling Together” event to try and stem the tide of the insidious interloper.

About a dozen Air Cadets from Trail Squadron 531 and their parents volunteered to lend a hand pulling thousands of helmets from the ground, in what Vogel described as the “worst infestation she’s seen in the last two years.”

The plants can grow over two-metres tall and must be pulled before they flower, otherwise seed transmission will occur, compounding the problem.

“They’re very, very aggressive because they shade out all the other native plants, so then it starts to impact all the other species as well and because they’re such a prolific seeder and because they grow vegetatively so they’ll grow through the roots – if we just threw this (a pulled plant) on the ground, it would start growing back into the ground immediately.”

Once pulled, the plants are placed onto a large tarp, and then covered with another tarp in order to fry the plant.

The biggest worry for the committee is not only that the plant will decimate the wetlands, affecting thousands of migratory birds and red listed species like the skink, but that it will continue down the bank until it hits the Columbia River.

The seeds can stay afloat for up to three days, and once embedded in the ground they remain viable for another 18 months, says Vogel.

“If it ends up in the Columbia, all the riparian areas will be impacted and because they are so shallow rooting, they increase erosion extensively.”

The plant specialist also cautions gardeners about the varietals they plant in the garden. While most plant nurseries are really good about informing people, any potential green thumb can check the committee’s website for more information on particularly nasty species.

Teck and Columbia Basin Trust sponsor the community pull, and awards non-profit groups like the Air Cadets a $250 stipend for a few hours work.

Vogel encourages other groups to get involved, raising funds and awareness by contributing to the environment and stopping the spread of invasive plants.

Go to kootenayweeds.com or phone 362-5624 for more information.