By Jackie Burns
It’s August. In Canaan Valley that means it is time for pulling out Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) so that it doesn’t become the problem here that it has become elsewhere. It’s a warm evening, just after a rain and about an hour before it will get dark. I have packed for my trip, which begins tomorrow, and have just this little bit of time. So, what am I doing? Pulling stiltgrass out of my yard. Doing my part.
As the name implies, this grass came to us from halfway around the world, courtesy of Japan, making it an alien plant. But not all alien plants are a problem, just those that become invasive and crowd out our native species. Such is the case with Japanese stiltgrass in many areas around us. But here in Canaan we caught it early and have been working to control it for about a decade now.
How do we tell stiltgrass from other similar plants in our area? Well first, grasses are parallel veined, most of our plants are net veined. So look at the veins to be sure the suspect plant is a grass. Stiltgrass leaves are short, typically 2-3 inches long, and have a silvery central vein running the length of the leaf. Also, the weak rootlets pull out of the soil much more easily than most of our plants. You learn the feel of this if you weed a patch of it.
If you go to areas where stiltgrass has aggressively invaded the forest floor, it covers the ground and outcompetes our native woodland wildflowers. But in Canaan Valley, we still have our natural woodland wildflowers and would like to keep them. So, where we have small patches of stiltgrass, we weed. And where the patches are larger, a spray might be used. Currently the preferred herbicide is called Post. Post only affects grasses, and instead of killing, it retards their growth. Stiltgrass dies back to the ground with a heavy frost and doesn’t seed until the second half of September. So, if its growth is slowed, it will typically die back from frost before going to seed.
As I do this weeding, I realize that in my neighborhood we do this work with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Recently the WV Highlands Conservancy was asked to support a petition asking the USFWS to stop using pesticides on National Wildlife Refuges. Since I worked for the USFWS I know that their applicators of pesticides and herbicides must be specially trained for this work, and they do try to minimize the use of these chemicals. Managing land for wildlife is challenging work. Taking away a tool that they use makes it more challenging, and at times impossible to get the desired results. I don’t think that a blanket ban on the use of pesticides is necessary or helpful. I think each project needs to be evaluated individually. I hope that the WV Highlands Conservancy will re-evaluate their position on this issue.