Purple loosestrife and environmental fascism

Have you noticed the profusion of magenta blossoms in the ditches, waysides and wet areas of the Pontiac?

The sometimes two-metre high pretty plant is purple loosestrife, which blooms from mid-July through mid-August. Called an “alien” species because Lythrum salicaria is native to Europe, the plant was probably imported to North America sometime in the early 1800s.

Perhaps it hitchhiked in a bale of hay used for livestock feed: however this emigrant came to our eastern shores, it has flourished.

In 1987, the US Fish and Wildlife department published a paper suggesting that this successful, invasive alien posed a serious threat to wetlands. Because each plant produces upwards of a million seeds, and because it has adapted so well to our climate and habitat, the purple invader chokes out native plants in the wetlands. As L. salicaria grows, its roots create a dense mat, choking out other species, which have been touted as “more desirable.”

By 1992, one of Canada’s well-organized hunter-conservation groups called the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, (OFAH) launched Project Purple. Concerned over the loss of wetland habitats, which support the wildlife — both fish and waterfowl — that sportsmen choose to “harvest,” the project is intended to “fight against an aggressive invader that is choking the life out of our wetlands.”

OFAH’s latest project purple media announcement, dated July 24, explains “Despite its beautiful, purple guise, purple loosestrife can move in and cover vast areas of wetland, including marshes, river banks and even low lying farm fields. As the sea of purple spreads, fewer and fewer native species of plants and animals thrive. Aggressive and with few natural enemies to control its rampant growth, purple loosestrife can displace native plants on which fish and wildlife depend for food, shelter and habitat.”

Project Purple was designed as a way not only to inform the public about the conservation threat of purple loosestrife, but also to encourage communities to eradicate the plant. Accordingly, cottage communities through to people like myself have been uprooting L. salicaria on sight, as much as feasibly possible.

And we’ve all felt good about it, thinking we’re doing a good thing for wetland habitats. If loosestrife is eradicated, so the mantra goes, we’re allowing native sedges, grasses, cattails and bulrushes to prosper. And, we believe, we’re therefore assisting in maintaining a more diverse food chain.

But have we been duped?

The July/August issue of Cottage Life magazine offers a thought-provoking article written by Victoria Foote. In it, she quotes University of Guelph zoology professor Tom Nudds as saying, “Just because something is here doesn’t mean it necessarily has detrimental effects.” Foote notes that he “ridicules some of the literature that’s been disseminated over the years, such as flyers labelling loosestrife a ‘beautiful killer’ or ‘most wanted,’ saying that it’s nothing less than ‘environmental fascism.’”

Now, “environmental fascism,” is a nifty term that has a definite ring to it. The term incorporates a cautionary warning to us all, including myself as an environmental and nature writer.

The caution is: who knows? Who can really tell whether purple loosestrife is a noxious weed or not?

In last week’s column, Farm Weeds of Canada, I quoted Dr. James Fletcher’s definition of a weed which, in 1906 he said could be “any injurious, troublesome, or unsightly plant that is at the same time useless or comparatively so.”

Is this plant injurious? It would seem so, because of its invasive qualities. Certainly from my layperson’s standpoint, loosestrife does appear to choke out many other species of plants so that wetlands resemble broad swathes of purple and nothing else.

But let’s consider the term “environmental fascism” again. Another aspect to reflect upon is who, or what organization benefits from the environmental “flavour of the month.”

OFAH is hardly without conflict of interest, because loosestrife poses a challenge to hunters and fishermen who find the tall stands of loosestrife difficult to penetrate. Writer Foote concurs with this line of thinking, as does Brian Husband, a botanist at the University of Guelph. In her article, Foote quotes him as saying, “OFAH’s mandate is to provide a playground for those who like to hunt and fish. If a plant might interfere with their activity, then it’s a problem.”

After conducting several studies, Husband thinks that environmentalists and organizations such as OFAH have gone overboard. “Our results provide no support for the hypothesis that the number of species in wetland is decreasing in association with the invasion of Lythrum salicaria in Ontario.” According to Foote’s research for her article, a paper published by the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences agrees with Husband, noting that “aquatic invertebrates do not diminish in population with the presence of loosestrife.”

What do we ordinary mortals make of such scientific disagreements?

It’s tough to know what to do, that’s what. What will I do, personally, here on my farm?

I’ll probably continue to pull out purple loosestrife when I see it on my property. So far, I’ve pulled it out at this time of the year from around my pond and even along the ditches in front of my land.

The jury’s out: I cannot possibly sit here and type up a weekly column, offering you all the answers. However, what I can do is inform you of the issues as presented to us all, in the media, so we can all make our own decisions with as much diverse input and opinion as possible.

But we all need to know one thing: every organization has an agenda, whether it be a botany department, chemical industry, government funding body, or an association of hunters and anglers. Environmental organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also have an agenda.

We the public know this. What’s just so darn difficult is making an informed, intelligent choice… But then again, that’s life, isn’t it?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her home north of Quyon, Quebec.