Invasive grass species spreads through town

Gardeners and businesses are unwittingly helping an invasive grass species spread and thrive in Winters

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Nassella tenuissima, also known as “Pony Tails,” into nearby wild habitats. Despite its beautiful form and drought tolerance, this grass is at the top of many do-not-plant lists in California. PlantRight, a San Francisco-based non-invasive plant advocacy group, launched a $24,000 campaign in 2014 to buy up all nursery stock from a large grower and destroy it. It remains at the top of their list of plants to avoid. Amy Williams, stewardship program manager for the Putah Creek Council, confirms this species is listed on the California Invasive Plant Council list. She says interest in the plant has grown as it spreads through town. Winters resident Denise Cottrell was surprised to learn she had planted an invasive grass in her yard when her friend, wildlife biologist and UCD Master Gardener Stephanie Myers, pointed it out. She pulled it out the same day and says she has to keep pulling it out as seeds continue to sprout. When she saw that it was for sale at ACE Hardware she spoke with store manager Gino Mediati, pulling up the PlantRight website on her phone to show him its invasive status. He told her he would notify the store owners and work to have it pulled from the shelves. I took a walk with Stephanie Myers along the Putah Creek trail behind the Winters Community Center. Passing behind the building, we spotted two large bunches of Mexican Feather Grass in a planter managed by the city. She pointed out various invasive plants that are creeping down to the water line. When asked why so many people continue to plant invasive species, she said that most people have good intentions but no idea that invasives are a problem, or that businesses would sell them in the first place. Hedgerow Farms, a nursery north of Winters, works to supply alternatives to invasive landscaping plants. According to Michele Ranieri, assistant general manager, “Invasive plant species can spread quickly into adjacent urban and wildland areas. Because of their aggressive nature they can take over areas quickly often displacing native species and reducing habitat values. “Native plant species can be an excellent choice for landscaping as they are often drought tolerant, adapted to local site conditions, and tend not to spread to adjacent areas.  Native grass species have very deep root systems that stabilize the soil, increase water infiltration, and recycle nutrients.” John Anderson, native grass specialist and retired founder of Hedgerow Farms, painted a dire picture of invasive grasses in the Yolo region. “Invasive annual grasses spread much faster than native perennials,” he says. When these non-native grasses dry out at the end of spring, the added plant mass contributes to the devastating wildfires that sweep through Yolo and surrounding counties year after year. There is a silver lining, he says, “Native grasses, because of their deep root systems, come back more readily in burned areas.” In fact, plant conservation agencies have worked in the past with the state and fire departments to perform “prescribed” burns over areas infested with invasive plants. After retiring from UC Davis in the mid-90s, Dr. Anderson took up native plant farming as a hobby and quickly became a regional expert on native grasses. He co-founded the California Native Grasslands Association, which along with other conservation organizations seeks to educate farmers and city dwellers alike about the benefits of planting native species, and the consequences of spreading showy but harmful invasive exotics. New developments in town, including the PG&E safety training facility, include native plants in their landscaping. These good stewardship practices cut down on maintenance costs for businesses and residences, as native plants usually require less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides and fungicides. For gardeners and landscapers looking for alternatives to Mexican Feather Grass, Hedgerow farms recommends the following: Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), Alkali Sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), Purple Needlegrass (Stipa pulchra), Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), and California Fescue (Festuca californica). Once established, these Yolo native species are drought tolerant and add flair to landscaping. In Winters it is possible to see Mexican Feather Grass in yards, in front of businesses and creeping into untended lots. Time will tell how the actions of local citizens and the city contribute to the spread or decline of invasive species in and around town. “I’m on a mission,” says Denise Cottrell. “Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to pull it out. But it’s not just about your yard; it’s about the bigger picture.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of PlantRight. The organization is located in San Francisco, not Berkeley. Additionally, an earlier version said PlantRight was a native plant advocacy group; a spokesperson clarified the group advocates for non-invasive plant species, which may include native and non-native plant species.]]>

    1. Patty, you can post the picture to the California Native Plant Society Facebook page, the “Plant Idents” Facebook page, or take it to your closest University.

    1. Patty, you can post the picture to the California Native Plant Society Facebook page, the “Plant Idents” Facebook page, or take it to your closest University.

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