Cataloging invasive plant species

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By Bryce Roberts

Songlin Fei has spent two years delving into the backgrounds of nearly 80 of Kentucky’s invasive plant species, not to lay blame for their presence, but to gain a historical perspective that could provide answers for the future.

“We’re seeing some very interesting things,” said Fei, assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry. “For instance, a species like bush honeysuckle – we had it in the 19th century. The earliest specimen in a Kentucky herbarium collection is from the 1860s.”

Fei and his research team discovered that particular specimen and those from other invasive plants in about a dozen other herbariums and museums scattered across the state, including the UK Herbarium. He also worked with J.D. Green, extension professor and weed scientist in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. Part of Green’s responsibility is to identify weeds for the public and provide weed control recommendations. Since 1986, he has developed an extensive database of more than 600 species submitted by county Cooperative Extension offices for identification. Between the centuries-old information gleaned from museums and Green’s 24 years’ worth of data, Fei has acquired what he terms “a snapshot view of plants we had in the past that are invasive.”

“Once we can see the snapshot of where they were first established and how they were distributed, then the scientific question you want to answer is how these species are moving around,” he said. “The data, the specimens we’re collecting – sometimes there is also information that says this plant has been found in a crop field, pasture land, non-crop area or other habitats. So we have some idea about their preferred habitat.”

Information such as this can also give researchers insight into how to eradicate or control species such as bush honeysuckle or Lespedeza cuneata, commonly known as sericea lespedeza.

Though the inventory is complete, Fei and his team in forestry are still analyzing the spatial patterns and creating maps of each species’ distribution. He said he can’t speak definitively because of the ongoing analysis, but he is starting to see some interesting patterns emerge.

“With species like bush honeysuckle, what might be interesting is that it doesn’t seem to be a single-point introduction. What I mean by that is, maybe in Lexington, Louisville and other Kentucky cities like Bowling Green, these plant species were introduced at the same time. So they have multiple sources, and the circles (of expansion) kind of spread that way. It’s fascinating to see these patterns,” he said.

Ascertaining the distribution patterns could be a valuable tool in controlling invasives.

“That’s what people call the pathway,” he said. “If you did know how they get around, and everybody works together, then we can stop new infestation.”

Fei plans to put his records online so the public can conduct searches for unfamiliar species that might appear in their yards. He also hopes, to keep track of what people have noticed on their properties.

“It will help us do some early detection. They would be like citizen scientists,” he said.

Fei hopes to lead the trend with the completed inventory, providing a roadmap and perhaps an incentive for other states to develop their own inventories.

“They all have that information available in their own states, but they’re not utilizing it,” he said. “We can show people, ‘Look you can actually use this data and get valuable information from this.’”

Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or you can email me at broberts@uky.edu.  You can visit the Spencer County Extension Services’ website at www.spencerextension.com.

Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.