Did you know that this week (February 27-March 4, 2017) is National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW, for short)?
Well, now you do.
But maybe now you are wondering what exactly is National Invasive Species Awareness Week? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about that, but first let’s clarify some terms.
As some of you may know, I work for Utah State University as a weed science researcher. (No, not that kind of weed.) As part of my job I get to teach the lab section for the Weed Biology and Control class. The first day of class is spent talking about what a weed is. It may seem silly to have to talk about what weeds are in a college class, but I want you to think about what you consider a weed to be. And it is very likely that if you were to talk to someone in another country, or state, or maybe even just the other side of town, and you’ll find that you have different opinions on what makes a certain plant a weed. At it’s very simplest, a “weed” is just a plant out of place. For example, I would consider a dandelion growing in my Kentucky bluegrass lawn to be a weed. I don’t want that dandelion there. But if we move over to my flower beds, and I find some bluegrass in there, well, now that is considered the weed. The same is true in agricultural settings as well – volunteer potatoes growing in this year’s onion field, or alfalfa growing in your corn field would be considered weeds. Even though in another setting they would be the crops, if they are growing in a location where they aren’t wanted, and someone is expending time and/or effort to remove them, they are weeds.
Sometimes, some weeds get extra labels like “invasive” or “noxious”. As defined in Executive Order 13112 (yes, even weeds merit executive orders) an “invasive” species is one that is aggressive, not native to North America, and causes – or is likely to cause – economic and environmental harm. In this broader definition, the term “invasive” includes plants, animals, insects, crustaceans, etc. The other term, “noxious”, is a legal definition designated by regulatory agencies and is a mandate for control. Each state, and even within counties, has a noxious weed list, and these species must be controlled by landowners, agencies, and others.
And what about those weeds that you can’t find on any sort of “noxious” list, but that you find to be particularly troublesome in your own garden? There’s a label for that too: obnoxious.
Really, all these designations are context dependent. Sometimes the crop becomes the weed. Sometimes non-native species never become invasive. And sometimes weeds that are considered noxious in one part of the world are considered endangered or rare in another part. And sometimes plants that may seem innocuous at first experience a rapid expansion and are suddenly on everybody’s radar for being a new invasive plant. In the invasive species literature there is a lot of talk of the “invasive curve”. I don’t know where it first started, but the idea is that many species experience a “lag” phase, where they don’t seem to be causing much of a problem, but they are also at a low enough level that they could be easily controlled. Unfortunately, many times these small infestations go unnoticed or undiscovered, which is why becoming familiar with the noxious and invasive weeds in your area is so important. And you don’t have to be a weed scientist to get in on the fun – citizen science for the win!
Which brings us back to National Invasive Species Awareness Week. NISAW is an annual event that aims to increase awareness of and identify solutions to invasive species problems at all levels, from local to national. Even though the main events are held in Washington D.C., there are ways to participate no matter your location or current knowledge of invasive species issues. I just caught part of a webinar earlier today, and signed up for a couple more later this week. You can check out the NISAW website to see if there are any events happening in your neck of the woods, or to register for the webinars.
Also, make sure to check back here later this week for more on what you can do to become more “weed aware”, or follow me on Instagram and Twitter where I’ll be sharing ideas and tips on for participating in #NISAW no matter where you are.