Hawkweed

Hawkweed is a Jekyll and Hyde plant: In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, hawkweed is a menace. While in the U.K., hawkweed is planted — on purpose ­— to preserve habitat for pollinators. 

KODIAK — Orange hawkweed is not just a pretty flower. It’s terrorizing home gardens and wild spaces from Alberta and Alaska to Oregon and Australia. 

Which explains why it is also known as devil’s paintbrush. (Such names aren’t given to angelic plants, right?) Hawkweed is now listed as one of the top ten noxious weeds in the US. Yet in the UK, hawkweed is a beloved perennial.

The Alaska Division of Agriculture has categorized orange hawkweed (scientifically, hieracium aurantiacum) as a type A ‘Prohibited and Restricted Noxious Weed,’ a classification that means it is impacting agricultural or wild lands in Alaska.

Like most invasive plants, orange hawkweed, which is native to Europe, quickly replaces native vegetation and threatens biodiversity. It spreads by producing runners and seeds, forming dense mats and crowding out native plants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Want an excuse for a nightmare?

A single plant can generate up to 600 seeds, each of which can be viable for around seven years.

The flowers’ beauty has helped it spread. Even your truly succumbed to its spell. “Oh, what a pretty flower,” I thought, when I first spotted it growing on Mission Road. I transplanted it in my yard, then quickly realized my mistake. The next spring, I yanked every plant and burned them in the woodstove.

The problem is that hawkweed’s natural predators didn’t travel with it across the Atlantic Ocean.

According to Steven Seefeldt of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, “Orange hawkweed first appeared in Juneau in 1961.”

In Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, yellow hawkweed, a close cousin to orange hawkweed, is threatening to take over the wildflower meadows, earning a place in Washington’s “Noxious Weed Coloring Book.” Other recent victims include New Zealand and Australia, to the dismay of local farmers and ranchers since even cattle won’t eat it.

 

KISSING COUSIN TO DANDELIONS

Hawkweeds are in the sunflower family and are related to dandelions. The flowers, which can grow to 18 inches tall, have clusters of oval-shaped petals with black-haired stems. According to the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia, they are “emerging as one of the most troublesome, aggressive, invasive plants in the Pacific Northwest.”

Blythe Brown, also known as The Weed Lady, has one piece of advice for anyone dealing with hawkweed: “Now that it’s blooming, people need to pull off the blooms before they go to seed.” 

Once hawkweed appears in your yard, trouble begins. It can mean the beginning of the end to your nice lawn, raised beds, and other planted spaces as they struggle to get rid of it.

 Entire ecosystems can be altered as plant communities — from wildflower meadows and pastures to wetlands and waterways — change from native to nonnative. On Kodiak Island, several hawkweed “hot spots” have choked out many acres of native wildflowers.

 

HOW TO CONTROL HAWKWEED?

For small isolated patches, pulling out the clumps — making sure you get every last bit of root and rhizome — is very effective. (Double bag it before disposing of it). 

Boiling hot water or vinegar poured onto the base of the plant can be effective too, depending on how dry/wet the area is and how established the plants are.

The problem escalates when larger areas become infested. Seefeldt says that mowing large areas of hawkweed only spreads it further. For large areas, it seems the best way to eradicate it is by using herbicides. Even Jeff Lowenfels, Mr. Organic Gardener and weekly columnist for the Anchorage Daily News says that if your yard is overrun with hawkweed, “apply herbicides and start over.”

If you decide to use herbicides, remember, you must follow the label on the container exactly as written. The label is the law.

 

THE GOOD SIDE OF HAWKWEED

Having painted a grim picture of orange hawkweed, I should note that there are places where hawkweed is held in high regard as a pollinator-friendly plant that enhances, not destroys, biodiversity. In Somerset County in the UK, gardeners have planted orange hawkweed, also known as fox-and-cub, alongside lemon balm, oxeye daisies, yellow rattle and bistort to restore habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

“More and more people are seeing the value of leaving their gardens a bit wild and the green spaces around town not so neat,” reported the Wellington Weekly News. “Messy is good, as far as wildlife is concerned. It is one of the indicators of a healthy, bio-diverse landscape – which is what all species need – including humans!” 

The only way to enjoy hawkweed flowers is to paint them, photograph them; pick them for disposal or to add them to a vase of flowers.

I suggest destroying the bouquet, however, before any seeds blow out the window. 

 

THE GARDEN JOB JAR:

— Pull hawkweed flowers off their stems before they go to seed.

— Dead-head annuals and perennial flowers

— Weed. Weed some more.

— When it’s sunny, hunt out slugs in shade and damp areas of your garden.

— Sow more lettuce, spinach, salad greens, peas, broccoli and kale.

— Thin carrots and beets.

— Hoophouse and greenhouse folks: Maintain good air circulation. And be on the alert for aphids.

— Take photos.

To sign up for my “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, visit my blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com

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