Kudzu may be better known throughout the South, but it doesn’t have anything on another invasive plant just as much a pest and threat to agriculture and timber interests as that unwelcome, green Asian import.
It’s called cogongrass and it’s been a nuisance longer than kudzu which also is known as the "vine that ate the South."
One of the biggest differences between cogongrass and kudzu is appearance. Kudzu’s clinging, creeping takeover of vast tracts of land is evident to anybody driving by its location.
Cogongrass generally is found along rights-of-way, in fields and around trees. Unlike kudzu, it doesn’t overwhelm the eye.
When kudzu arrived from Asia during the Depression, it was warmly received at first—considered by farmers to be a great way to control erosion. Sadly, they would soon learn it wasn’t much good for anything.
Cogongrass didn’t receive an agricultural invitation to help stop erosion. It made its way into Alabama and the rest of the South quite uninvited from the Port of Mobile, most likely in packing crates. That was in 1912, nearly a century ago.
It wouldn’t be long before its seeds would spread throughout the southern part of Alabama, causing headaches for those trying to get rid of it.
"Cogongrass has been a worldwide pest for a long time," Assistant State Forester Bill Baisden told The Cooperative Farming News in an interview. "It’s so bad it can actually change ecosystems."
How, then, to get rid of it? One way is joint action involving Southeastern states where cogongrass has made its presence known for decades.
Not long ago, the Alabama Forestry Commission joined with similar agencies in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Carolinas to approve a "Memorandum of Understanding" to coordinate regional efforts to fight the spread of cogongrass whose scientific name is Imperata Cylindrica.
As a result of the agreement, forestry officials around the region will work with landowners and groups to help deal with cogongrass. It will involve ways to either control or suppress cogongrass. It’s also designed to educate people who don’t have a clue about what it is.
Alabama State Forester Linda Casey is well aware, if left unabated, cogongrass will continue to grow and pose a threat not only to tree stands, but also productive land, wildlife and ecosystems.
"Cogongrass is not going away on its own," she said, adding the Southeastern memorandum "will help us leverage local, state and federal resources, not only to battle this destructive weed, but also help educate landowners and citizens about the impact and spread of cogongrass."
Cogongrass, a weed that starts small, but can grow to more than four feet in height, has infested more than a billion acres worldwide. It has the ability to choke out native plants and destroy wildlife habitat. It can spread two ways—seeds blown by the wind or underground.
In addition to its plant and grass-choking dangers, it’s also a major fire hazard. Cogongrass’ roots are fire-tolerant, but its leaves and flowers are extremely flammable, thus presenting a fire hazard for firefighters and rural residents.
Few in Alabama understand the dangers posed by congongrass. Baisden, one of the state’s leading authorities on the weed, certainly does and he keeps tabs on it as much as he can.
When he clicks on his office computer in Montgomery, it’s likely he’ll be checking on a state map which shows clusters of cogongrass taking up a large area of southwestern Alabama, primarily in Baldwin, Washington, Monroe and other counties in the area.
"We worry about fire ants and killer bees, but cogongrass spreads much faster," he said. "The reason is it’s morphed enough to become more viable, especially around our forests."
Baisden said cogongrass does not present quite the same danger to farmers as it does to those in the timber industry, particularly those who raise row crops and till the soil on a regular basis.
Cogongrass doesn’t have quite the same opportunity to spread when dirt is turned over each year. That’s not the case in forests where it competes aggressively for nutrients also being sought by young pine trees just beginning to grow.
Location is a key factor in combating cogongrass, said Baisden, who describes defenses against it almost in military terms.
"You can’t effectively fight a war if you don’t know where the enemy is," he said. "The task force we’ve created recognizes that fact and has been gearing up to have an active detection element."
Funding, as it usually is in difficult economic times, is short at the moment and Baisden said effective chemical treatment will be expensive.
He doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the bottom line, saying it will take "billions of dollars to defeat cogongrass."
Educational efforts have begun at selected sites this spring—which is the primary growing season for the weed.
"It blooms in late May and into June, so now is the easiest time to treat it," said Baisden, who added cogongrass is relatively dormant in the winter and is covered by a thick brown mats of grass.
Once cogongrass begins to flourish, however, he said it can quickly take over areas, including pastures. Unfortunately, it isn’t palatable for cattle grazing in those fields because it has tiny prickly-edges up and down each thin stalk.
Dave Moorhead, a cogongrass expert at the University of Georgia, said now is the best time of year to begin controlling or eradicating it since it’s the invasive plant’s growing season.
Moorhead and others are spearheading training sessions across Georgia to alert Cooperative Extension agents and road crews on how to recognize cogongrass. That’s one of the reasons for regional meetings in Alabama.
"County road crews out on equipment are more likely to see infestations, especially this time of year," Moorehead said, adding cogongrass has been identified on 220 sites in 28 Georgia counties. That may only be the tip of the iceberg, however.
Moorhead said chemical treatments are important and must be applied on a regular basis because once cogongrass takes hold "it can be very difficult to kill."
"You can’t control it with a single herbicide treatment," he said. "You can’t treat it once and just walk away. It’s an ongoing treatment for many years to eliminate it from an area."
More than half of Alabama’s 67 counties have reported cogongrass infestations and forestry experts are trying their best to keep it from spreading to the rest.
"It can resprout quickly if you don’t keep at it," said Baisden. "Our recommendation is to attack it quickly and aggressively."
That’s why timing is important. Baisden said aggressive herbicide spraying in areas where cogongrass is still "young" can result in "total victory" over that area of infestation.
Baisden said America is basically the "newbie on the block" because cogongrass has been a worldwide pest "for a long time."
"Actually, we’re the last country to be invaded by it," he said. "Asia and Africa have been hit the hardest. In some parts of the Philippines there are mountains of it with the landscape reflecting nothing but cogongrass."
It’s for that reason Alabama forestry officials are going all out to eradicate or, at least, control the invasive weed. Signing the Memorandum of Agreement with other Southeastern states is a step in that direction.
Baisden estimated less than 15 percent of Alabama landowners understand cogongrass and the dangers it poses to their property.
He quickly gets their attention, however, when he tells audiences the slightest pickup of cogongrass seeds on boots can carry it into counties that have not had a problem with it before.
Working with the other states and focusing attention on Alabama organizations that might deal with cogongrass is important, he said, "and it seems to be working."
"Looking back on past years, we’ve seen different departments with their own programs to kill cogongrass," he said. "We were basically walking on top of each other and weren’t getting the message out. We weren’t consistent. I think we will be now."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.