Purple Loosestrife on the Loose

By Tim Smith, | August 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 1998

What's purple and green and can transform wetlands into wastelands? No, it's not Barney using his imagination again. It's purple loosestrife, a plant that has overrun hundreds of thousands of acres of North American wetlands, replacing a diverse vegetation of grasses, sedges and other wetland plants with a purple monoculture.

People choose purple loosestrife, a beautiful plant, as a landscape perennial to provide color during the heat of summer, when many horticultural species are not in flower, and to provide nectar for honeybees when other bee plants are scarce.

Despite its attractiveness, purple loosestrife provides little value to wildlife and can harm many wildlife species by completely dominating wetlands. Purple loosestrife habitats in Missouri include pond and lake edges, streambanks and ditches in pastures, fields and roadsides. Native wetland plants die out due to shading from the tall, dense purple loosestrife stands.

Native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife was first brought to North America in the early 1800s. Its seeds may have journeyed here accidentally in the ballast of ships or they may have been brought here intentionally for ornamental cultivation. Purple loosestrife has long been used as an herbal medicine to stop bleeding and treat dysentery, providing another motivation for intentional introduction. The seeds also may have hitched a ride in imported wool and when the wool was washed in this country the seeds entered our waterways. It now grows in nearly all of the lower 48 states and is most widespread in the northeastern and north-central United States and Canada.

Missouri had populations of purple loosestrife as early as 1952. The first reports came from Franklin and Newton counties. Today we find it in the wild at 45 sites in 23 counties. Macon County, in the vicinity of La Plata, is home to the greatest concentration of plants.

Like most problem exotic plants, purple loosestrife has the ability to spread rapidly once established in a wetland. A single plant may produce over 100,000 tiny seeds in a growing season. The seeds remain viable for long periods in wetlands and may be spread by wind, on the feet of waterfowl or by other wetland animals. Seeds become buoyant as they begin to germinate, allowing them to float to new areas.

Conservation Department land managers have been attempting to eradicate purple loosestrife since the late 1980s. A spray crew annually visits known sites in mid-summer and applies herbicide to the plants before they produce seeds. A shortcoming of herbicide treatments is that they must be repeated annually. If any residual seeds persist in the soil, they will continue to germinate in successive years until the seed bank is exhausted.

Treatment of sites on private land requires permission of landowners. Most private landowners are cooperative and allow Conservation Department employees to apply herbicides to loosestrife colonies on their land. However, some landowners like the plant for its beauty and don't consider it a problem because it occupies unused habitats, such as pond banks, ditches, and wet areas. The danger in allowing populations to persist, however, is that purple loosestrife eventually will find its way into natural wetlands and greatly diminish the variety of plants and animals that live there.

Because herbicide treatment is not practical in regions with many large infestations, several states are trying a biological control method. Biological control makes use of other organisms to combat the problem species, often reuniting the problem species with its natural enemies from its native range.

Researchers studied the organisms that keep purple loosestrife under control in Europe and Asia and evaluated them for use in North America. They selected a trio of insects to do battle: a leaf-eating beetle, a root-mining weevil and a seed-eating weevil. Years of tests minimized the chance that these exotic insects would harm non-target species in North America.

Biological control is not risk-free because it involves introducing additional non-native species to try to control an earlier non native introduction. Thus far, none of these insects have been released in Missouri, but it may be necessary and practical to use them in the future. For example, one Missouri purple loosestrife population exists around the margin of a lake that is a municipal water supply, so using herbicides is prohibited. Biological control may be the only practical treatment for purple loosestrife at such a site. Other midwestern states with more and larger infestations have begun introducing insects for biological control with encouraging preliminary results.

Conservation Department biologists will continue to track populations of purple loosestrife in Missouri and attempt eradication wherever possible. You can help by reporting any wild populations. We are not interested in locations of ornamental plantings where plants are not spreading from the planting site. For a descriptive color poster, write Purple Loosestrife Poster, Natural History Section, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.

Purple loosestrife regulation

Two species of plants, numerous hybrids and selections of these are called purple loosestrife. One of the species, Lythrum salicaria, was declared a noxious weed by the Missouri Legislature in 1989. This prohibits the sale of that species or any of its hybrids in Missouri. It is also unlawful to distribute or plant its seeds or any part of the plant in the state.

The other species, Lythrum virgatum, and its hybrids do not usually produce viable seeds. Therefore they do not spread and are still legal to sell as potted plants in Missouri. Some states have prohibited the sale of all purple loosestrife because of the difficulty in determining which plants are aggressive spreaders and because cross-pollination of non-spreading plants can produce ones that spread. The sale of any purple loosestrife seeds is illegal in Missouri.

Success Story

Joyce and Gary Burton are pleased to report that only a few plants of purple loosestrife remain around the Burton pond in Randolph County. Annual application of herbicide has prevented the plants from taking over the banks and shallow water areas of the pond and a wet area below. The Burtons' experience with purple loosestrife began in 1985 when they recognized the purple-flowered plants on their property as the same ones pictured in a Missouri Conservationist article that warned of the plant.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer