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Knotweed

07/01/05 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) Here in Vermont, certain plants clearly contribute to our sense of place. Commentator Bill Shutkin has decided to take on one that doesn't.


(SHUTKIN) There's a plague among us. It goes by the name Japanese Knotweed. I thought I had left this insidious herb behind when my family and I moved from the city to Vermont last year. Boy, was I was mistaken.

Known euphemistically as New England Bamboo, knotweed is a roadside plant that, like so many invasive species, was introduced from Europe via the Far East. With its alternate leaves and arching stalks, it looks at first glance like the gentle hobblebush, an under- story shrub of Vermont's mountain forest. Anything but gentle, knotweed is spreading across the state at a rapid clip, from down- town lots to remote wilderness paths.

After we installed a new septic system at our house last year, I was horrified to find that, within days, small red stems with oblong leaves began to sprout. The gravel used to backfill the leach field must have carried knotweed. I immediately began pulling out the young plants and burning them.

Unfortunately, thanks to its thick underground stem and endless supply of carbohydrates, every single fiber and cell of the plant has to be stripped out of the earth, or it will regenerate. No small labor considering its root stem can grow quickly to tens of feet.

That knotweed is outcompeting native plants is bad enough. But what's really troublesome is its effect on my sense of place. I remember hiking down one a section of the Catamount Trail in Weston many summers ago. About two miles from the nearest road, I came across a large stand of knotweed stretching about 40 feet along the trail. In an instant, I was no longer in the Green Mountain National Forest. Instead, I felt as if I could have been in any urbanized setting, any city where invasive species like knot- weed are so common, thanks to their high tolerance for blight. It was disorienting.

Observing the spread of invasives like knotweed, the writer David Quammen warns that we're heading toward a planet of weeds, a place where crows and kudzu and cockroaches dominate, where super-species whose ability to thrive in the most extreme environ- ments has given them a competitive edge in a world where the line between the pristine and developed is no longer so clear.

Maybe it's the case that I'm too much of a purist in believing that certain plants simply don't belong in certain places - that the spread of knotweed is an unqualified threat. After all, we live on a dynamic planet; change, not equilibrium, is the norm. But what is place if it isn't something defined by those things that are unique to it? And what's the fate of Vermont's distinctive understory plants in the face of knotweed's homogenizing effect?

This summer, I asked my kids to join me in a Knotweed Patrol, to stand guard against the invader along our roadside and fields. I might not be able to save the planet from knotweed, but I can sure as heck do something about my own backyard.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.
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