Four years ago, plant biologists in Maryland thought they could get a handle on wavyleaf basketgrass before it went the way of kudzu.
At that time, the plant, a native of Southeast Asia that was first discovered in the United States near a Baltimore County reservoir in 1996, had only been confirmed in a few places. The green grass with rippling waves on its blades was thought to be an invader on the verge, but state invasive plant biologists believed they could stop it from taking hold. Armed with a little bit of money and a lot of volunteers, they predicted the job would be done by now.
But wavyleaf basketgrass has increased more than tenfold since then. Where it once occupied about 150 acres, it now stretches across more than a thousand, said Kerrie Kyde, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' invasive plant specialist.
"In 2008 and 2009, I was still sure that, if someone handed me $1 million, and gave me five years, I could take this stuff out," Kyde said. "In 2010, I realized, 'I cannot do this.'"
In addition to its presence in the interior of public hiking trails in Patapsco Valley State Park and Little Paint Branch Park, wavyleaf has also hopscotched across private lands. It is now in Virginia, on that state's side of Great Falls and in Shenandoah National Park.
Kyde said she now realizes that the dream of eradication was too ambitious, considering how the plant spreads. It can grow horizontally along the ground, or spread its seed through thistle-like spikelets. The spikelets produce a sticky substance that glues the seeds to anything passing by - a deer hoof, bike tire, puppy paw - which then carries the seed to a new site, inadvertently spreading the plant.
It doesn't help that nothing seems to eat it, or that it will grow just about anywhere, under any soil condition - and seems to like Maryland's climate. As a perennial, it comes back every year. The only place it seems to avoid is bright and direct sunlight.
Biologists have put up signs warning park visitors to look out for the plant and take care not to spread it. But a lot of people aren't getting the message, especially because the plant is green and pretty.
"We were doing field work at Liberty reservoir last summer, and this woman came up and said, 'that's such a pretty grass. I dug it up and planted it in my yard,'" said Vanessa Beauchamp, an invasive plant specialist at Towson University who is focusing her research on wavyleaf.
Beauchamp and Kyde are trying to figure out how the grass spreads and if it outcompetes native plants or just fills in the gaps where none are growing. Beauchamp and her students walked deer hindquarters through the grasses at the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park. They concluded that, while the seeds will stick to deer fur, they adhere much better to dog fur.
But money for research hasn't exactly been flowing in. Beauchamp said she was turned down for a grant to research how much of a threat the grass was because the application hadn't proved that it was a threat. Marc Imlay, a conservation biologists for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, tried to get between $5 million and $10 million from Congress for several years, but couldn't. Funding has only gotten tighter since then.
The biologists now hope for containment. Imlay and his volunteer weekend weed warriors have cut back the plant in Little Paint Branch, and continue to look for spots where it might have spread.
The story might have ended differently if only news of the plant had spread as fast as its seeds.
Ed Uebel, an amateur botanist, first discovered the plant in Patapsco Valley State Park in 1996. He didn't know what it was, so he asked a botanist friend, Charles Davis, to identify it. Davis wasn't sure, so they sent it to Paul Peterson of the Smithsonian, who identified it.
Three years after its discovery, they wrote a paper on wavyleaf. But otherwise, Kyde said, not much happened until 2006 when Imlay discovered it at Little Paint Branch. Imlay raised the alarm, so biologists went back to the place where Uebel first discovered it one decade earlier. Instead of a small patch, Kyde said, "by the time we found it, it was carpet."
Patapsco park employees had known about the grass, but hadn't made any attempt to get rid of it.
Kyde, Imlay and others decided to change that. They had the parks post signs about the grass. They treated 120 acres, worked with 40 different landowners and spent $100,000. But it wasn't enough.
The only hope of containment now is for wavyleaf to be declared a federal noxious weed. Then, the effort to control its spread might receive some money.