The curious history of an invasive plant along the trail

September 13, 2019

I broke into journalism in 1972, with a weekly newspaper in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. That experience made me curious about several patches of a plant I saw this week – growing along the Lewes-Georgetown Trail – that I’ve rarely noticed before in Sussex. It looked like Johnson grass to me.

But first, some background.

Headquartered in Centreville, Md., the county seat, the Record-Observer serves that rural county of Queen Anne’s, west of Sussex.  

Typical of many Delmarva counties, the Queen Anne’s County economy historically orbited around the farming community and the watermen’s community. In Queen Anne’s, the farming community spread around Centreville. The watermen’s community branched out from Kent Island, Kent Narrows and the many waterways around them.

Those economies overlapped. Many families made their living off the land and the water. But because of the complexities of both industries, the most successful focused on one or the other.

I quickly learned the vital importance of oysters, crabs and fish, as well as corn, wheat and soybeans.

News people like superlatives. Highest mountains, longest rivers, coldest winters, hottest summers, largest crabs. These characterizations get our attention. Queen Anne’s County for centuries has been known as the Maryland county that grows the most corn. It’s the soil, the sun, the rain, the geographical size of the county and the farmers. Together, they get it done.

Given all that, threats are naturally also part of the news cycle. Just as I learned about seafood and crops, I also learned about Johnson grass, and here comes the local connection.

Johnson grass is named for the South Carolina farmer who imported the rapidly growing plant from overseas in the 1800s as a forage crop for cattle. The problem is, Johnson grass grows too quickly and soon made a nuisance of itself by spreading into corn and soybean fields. Unchecked, Johnson grass can diminish the productivity of a field of corn or beans by as much as 30 or 40 percent. It was labeled as one of this nation’s earliest invasive plant species.

In Delaware, which is all about firsts, Johnson grass was the first identified invasive plant species. The General Assembly, in the 1800s, recognized the problem and instituted a series of programs to stem the threat to the productivity of Delaware farms. It is still illegal for property owners to allow Johnson grass plants to grow above 24 inches.

Above that height, the plants can go to seed, and their leaves can generate enough energy to allow their aggressive rhizome-root systems to spread. They become a double whammy. New plants can grow from seeds that fall from above, and below, from the spreading roots.

Delaware’s Johnson grass control system includes identification assistance and the free use of spraying equipment to knock out the plants before they become a formidable crop assault force. Property owners can also face fines if they don’t take steps to eradicate infestations.

Modern farming techniques including herbicides take care of much of the problem, but Johnson grass can still be a challenge as it spreads and crowds out other, more valuable species.

I must not be the only one to have noticed Johnson grass along the trail. This week, the Cape Gazette received a press release from Delaware’s Department of Transportation about closures along the trail over the next couple of weeks. “The closure is necessary for the removal of trees, trimming of trees, mowing, and spraying,” said the release.

Isn’t it amazing what gets impressed into and filed by our brains for later retrieval?

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