Battle rages against Cicer milkvetch

You wouldn’t touch a rattlesnake’s tail, so keep your mitts off a shakeable weed-like plant that’s invading Red Deer’s Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary.

You wouldn’t touch a rattlesnake’s tail, so keep your mitts off a shakeable weed-like plant that’s invading Red Deer’s Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary.

Local naturalists have their hands full trying to keep the pesky Cicer milkvetch from pushing out native vegetation at the sanctuary around the Kerry Wood Nature Centre.

Kids love to get their fists around the tactile plant with the hard seed pod that looks and rattles like a rattlesnake’s tail. “It’s fun to shake it. Kids even call it a rattlesnake plant,” said Diane Olson, the centre’s school and youth interpreter.

But when the pod is shaken, seeds are released — which compounds the problem.

Olson said the sanctuary has inexplicably had an “explosion” of the plant, considered a hardy legume, in the last few years. “It’s everywhere where the path gets plowed.”

Cicer milkvetch is a forage crop that’s still grown as cattle feed by some area farmers. But naturalists are trying to educate producers about its invasive qualities, said Olson, who pulls up the plant whenever she finds it.

There’s no other way to get rid of it, she added, since Cicer milkvetch was imported from Eastern Europe and has no natural predators in Western Canada.

It’s even made a strong comeback after a controlled burn at the centre.

“It’s pretty hardy stuff,” said Olson, who asks city residents who find the plant on their property pull it up to prevent its spread. “It’s good to get rid of it before it starts seeding.”

Despite the problem at the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary, City of Red Deer parks workers don’t focus their weed-pulling efforts on Cicer milkvetch because the plant isn’t on a provincial hit list yet.

Ken Lehman, parks planner and ecological specialist, said plenty of other weeds are officially considered either “prohibited noxious” (the worst kind) or simply “noxious” and are supposed to be pulled in Alberta.

On the list for control or eradication is the purple loosestrife, Himalayan balsam and oxeye daisy.

Lehman said these species are known to push native plants out, killing natural diversity, animal and bird habitat, and sometimes valuable plant filtration systems around wetlands.

None of the trio is native to North America, but was likely imported by well-meaning European or Asian immigrants who loved the look of the wildflowers in their homeland, and couldn’t predict their out-of-control spread in North America.

Knowing what a nuisance the plants are, Lehman said it’s important when buying wildflower seed mixtures to ensure they don’t contain some of these weeds in the mix.

Nursery staff can recommend less invasive alternatives for gardens, he added.

Much of the city parks workers’ job revolves around keeping dandelions under control. While these aren’t on any provincial eradication list, Lehman said there’s a “political” reason to stay on top of them — Red Deer residents demand it.

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