COOS COUNTY — A new invasive weed is causing concerns in the county.
The Coos Watershed Association announced that the Policeman’s Helmet from the western Himalayas in India has been introduced to Coos County. It is also known as the Himalayan Balsam and was initially isolated to one area, which was contained, but now may have spread.
“It was introduced as an ornamental plant in a garden sale,” said Alexa Carleton, the education program leader for CWA. “It is a big topic now and a concern because it was sold as part of a fundraiser plant sale, which is illegal because it is listed with the state as a noxious weed under the Oregon Department of Agriculture.”
Because of this, the CWA doesn’t know where else it could be growing and are trying to spread the word to keep a look out for the weed since it is believed to have spread.
“We don’t know how many people bought or planted them,” Carleton said.
The plant can grow anywhere from 3 to-6 feet in dense clusters, blossoming annually. The flower, which is where the name comes from because it looks like a policeman’s helmet, can contain 800 to 2,500 seeds. From the wind to being brushed, any touch can lead to seeds “exploding” up to 20 feet.
“They are really beautiful, which is why people like it as an ornamental plant,” Carleton said. “Once you see it and know it, you can identify it because it is unique.”
The biggest problem, according to Carleton, is that it outcompetes native vegetation. As she put it, if it spreads then instead of having a native ecosystem that supports the local food web it creates a monoculture, meaning there is only one plant that then impacts everything from bugs to birds and fish.
“It has an impact on the soil too,” she explained. “It can cause erosion issues because if you don’t have the root systems that should be there it can cause banks to sluff off and impact water quality.”
As Carlton described, it would not only disturb the environment but also the economy. It could easily take over a field where sheep or cattle are raised, or logging areas.
“You can just pull them instead of use chemicals to get rid of them, but if they get out of hand they are expensive to control,” she said.
Cyndi Park runs the invasive species and lowlands restoration programs for CWA and advised the public to not try pulling out the Policeman’s Helmet if it is flowering. Because it has such a large seedbank, it may be best to wait until next year to get rid of it. Not only that, but she warned that it is not a “one-time fix” either.
“When you find it, it has to become part of your annual land management where you visit the site every year,” she said. “Because it explodes seeds, one strategy when you pull it to carefully bag it and then remove it. If it is near water, which it usually is, you have to be careful because the seeds can travel downstream and attach to the streambed so if you touch it you may spread it a mile away without knowing it.”
Though both Park and Carleton don’t want to shame the people who sold the Policeman’s Helmet at the plant sale, “because they are probably horrified enough since they didn’t know it was illegal,” people should keep an eye out in case it shows up in other garden sales.
“We want to know about it too, so if you see it, call us,” Carleton said. “If you see it in your yard, call us. We want to keep track of the population for our records.”
Until then, Carleton hopes that gardeners are aware of what they are putting in their yards.
“Do you research, because it is important,” she said.
To report the Policeman’s Helmet, call the CWA at 541-888-5922.