COGONGRASS—NEWEST SCOURGE OF THE SOUTHEAST
George Kessler is worried about cogongrass. Never heard of it? It is known to be in Pickens and Anderson counties right now. “Cogongrass is one of the most invasive species in the world. It is a real threat to wildlife like whitetail deer, turkey, dove, squirrel and rabbit. If this stuff gets a foothold it could take-over the Southeast, maybe even more so than kudzu,” said Kessler.
Kessler is the cogongrass coordinator for Clemson University’s Agricultural Extension Service. He is organizing a task force to survey 26 counties in South Carolina, at or near the Georgia state line. From May 15th through the 18th volunteers, as many as 500, are needed “to help find cogongrass in South Carolina,” said Kessler.
“Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrical) is native to Asia. It spreads by seeds and rhizomes and once established it chokes out native plants by releasing a toxin into the soil that inhibits growth of other plants, which means less food for game animals,” said Kessler.
In appearance it looks a lot like our frequently planted ornamental grasses. It is often sold in plant nurseries and on the internet as Red Baron, japgrass or Japanese Bloodgrass.
The rhizomes are very hard to kill and grow deep in the soil—6-8 inches, forming colonies. They can hitch-hike on farm equipment and mowers and migrate to new locations, according to the Center for Invasive Species at the University of Georgia.
In one case in Beaufort County, a resident planted cogongrass in a pot in her yard. The rhizomes grew into the ground and became established. Clemson University has been chemically treating the soil since 2004 in an attempt to kill the plant, according to the Island Packet newspaper.
As if this were not enough, cogongrass is great fuel for wildfires. “When the grassy leaves dry in winter they can catch fire and burn at temperatures as hot as 800 degrees,” said Kessler.
Temperatures that hot can kill even fire resistant trees like pine and could pose a huge risk to the timber industry. “This is why the Cogongrass Task Force is doing a survey. If you would like to volunteer call Jeanne Campbell at the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at 864-656-2479,” said Kessler.
Cogongrass grows like other ornamental grasses, such as pampas, in attractive circular formations as tall as five feet. The leaves are rough to the touch and usually look yellow-green in color, turning red in the fall. The fluffy silver-white plume occurs in the spring, according to the Auburn University Cooperative Extension Service.
At present cogongrass covers at least 200,000 acres in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Some experts say infestation is many times greater and the total acreage is undercounted. Numerous states have banned the importation of the pest, but a quick search of internet sites revealed many dealers still selling the ornamental grass as a bonsai plant and for outdoor planting in many areas of the country.
Cogongrass and its relatives are banned for sale in South Carolina, said Janet Scott of the Agricultural Extension at Clemson University. On April 26 of this year, the Georgia Department of Agriculture banned the sale of cogongrass and its relatives in the State of Georgia, according to their webpage.
For some excellent photos and detailed information about cogongrass go to“http://www.clemson.edu/for/cogon.html.”
In a worst case scenario, if not contained, cogongrass could cover large areas of the Southeast and turn the southern forests into grassy savannahs devoid of all native plant species, Kessler believes.
Reporting from Clemson, Vince Jackson