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Hunt this plant down and get rid of it!

This spring’s blooming shrubs flowering frothy shades - after six months of dark green and white - are champagne in the veins. Within the River Journal’s reach is a wealth of native shrubs and herbaceous blooming plants; serviceberry, hawthorn, mock orange, chokecherry, pit cherry, mountain ash. The region is further blessed by having a fortune in humans who plant and nurture lovely ornamentals. Every time I see that hedge of nearly neon yellow forsythia in Clark Fork, some champagne bubbles pop.

There is a shrub with graceful, wand-like stems, small leaves, and elegantly drooping abundance of flowers that range from white to baby-pink and delicate lavender. Kill this plant on sight. Call your county extension agent for complete identification and best methods of to destroy the stealthy-invader.

Imported early in the 1800s from Eurasia, tamarisk, aka salt cedar, was described in the 1978 edition of Organic Gardening Press, Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening as: “Deciduous trees and shrubs highly tolerant of salt and sand, tamarisk or salt cedar are good plants for seaside gardens. The long slender branches, minute, scalelike leaves and graceful panicles of small pink flowers give this ornamental a delicate feathery appearance.”

Horticulturists have been importing plants since Colonial times. Nearly every ornamental in yards and fruit trees in orchards represent a species imported and improved upon. In The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan suggests that plants have evolved to satisfy human needs and wants. By producing brighter blossoms, sweeter fruit, bigger vegetables, plants use human intervention as an environmental success strategy.

It was not the horticulturists, however, that aided tamarisk towards victory in stealing over a million US acres - a million acres that once grew willows and cottonwoods are now covered exclusively by dense thickets of beautiful, treacherous tamarisk. A small flat at the toe of a cliff, in a bend of a river once provided for thousands of insects, hundreds of songbirds, tens of rodents and an occasional hawk. Now the graceful wands of tamarisk cover the flat. There are no perching sites for birds of prey, no heron rookeries, no nesting or feeding for the 600 species of riparian birds that are endangered or threatened. There is no sweet inner bark for beaver to relish. The soil is saltier because the long tamarisk taproots bring the mineral up. Multiply this half-acre or so by a couple million.

Around every bend of nearly every southwest river in the U.S. is another thicket of tamarisk. The Park Service is trying to get rid of it in Zion along the Virgin River. We have camped, because salt cedar covers every flat site, in stands of tamarisk along the Rio Grande, Colorado and last month, through the winding canyon of the San Juan River.

We saw ravens, geese with goslings, mallards, swallows, and sandpipers. Every day we were treated to the flute-like trill of canyon wrens, but there was an absence of warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes. The plots of land that once grew beans and corn for the Anasazi are salt saturated and now only support the feathery head-high blooms of salt cedar.

The sponsor that encouraged tamarisk immigration was, you might have guessed, the same government agency that is trying desperately to obliterate the noxious weed, the United States Department of Agriculture. In the early 1900s, the USDA vigorously imported salt cedar to plant as erosion control on the banks of irrigation ditches. And so it goes.

Salt cedar evolved in a harsh environment. Old Testament Abraham sat under a salt cedar and offered kindness to three strangers. The shrub was welcome respite in a desert landscape. Move this desert shrub to a milder climate where it has no natural predators and give the thirsty salt cedar unlimited water - Katie, bar the door! Salt cedar is programmed to take advantage of excess water. The shrubs flourish and have a longer blossoming season, bigger flowers, and more seeds with rapid germination. Thick growth discouraged native cottonwood and willow regeneration. Beaver and deer prefer not to eat tamarisk. The soil gets saltier further inhibiting native vegetation.

A plant that thrives along rivers in the desert southwest would not, you would think, be a problem in the northwest. Would you be willing to gamble on this untested belief? Would you throw the dice against the diversity of a rich environment? Would you bet the pot by risking the habitat of our warblers and thrushes?

Eastern Montana is being invaded by tamarisk. There was a thriving hedge of the lovely shrub near Victor, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, but the woman who planted it, ripped it out before selling the property. There are some growing luxuriantly in Coeur d’ Alene and probably some in Sandpoint and maybe one in Clark Fork. Kill the lovely, greedy invaders.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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