Apr 16, 2013

Ligustrum Control? Don’t Expect Texas Legislature to Help

By Sheyna Webster
For Reporting Texas

AUSTIN — Fast-spreading ligustrum, a plant that invaded Central Texas over 20 years ago, is “Public Enemy No. 1” for native Texas plants, said Eric Courchesne, program director of the Austin Parks Foundation.

Courchesne is working with local volunteer organizations to control and remove the tree in such heavily affected areas as greenbelts and parks. But he and other environmentalists believe that the effort will have limited success without a law that bans the trees on private lands.

“Ligustrum is such a prolific seeder that it totally takes over wildlife areas — it can totally drown out all other species until you have a ligustrum forest, essentially,” said Jessica Strickland, invasive species program coordinator at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “We’ll never completely get rid of it, but if we don’t try and do something to manage it and reduce the seed bank, then it will continue to take over.”

No bill has been proposed in the current session of the Texas Legislature. After all, ligustrum is common in many home gardens because it quickly grows into shady trees. Ligustrum, brought here from Asia, has adapted to the Texas climate and can withstand all seasons, Courchesne explained.

The tree can produce 1,000 times more fruit than pecan trees and does not die when its roots are chopped off; it simply grows more sprouts, according to Courchesne. Plant experts say that ligustrum creates erosion problems by disturbing the root structure of grasses that keep the soil intact and that help feed animals.

“Ligustrum is ultimately crowding out tons of native species that are the foundation of biodiversity in our open spaces,” Courchesne said. “All the native grasses and wildflowers species are outcompeted, and bird and bee species depend on some of these plants that are pushed out.”

Though ligustrum can grow wild, it is also sold in home improvement stores. Birds and other animals carry the fruit to wild areas, making it hard to control its spread, some naturalists explain.

“If we don’t take these necessary steps, we will continue to battle for biodiversity in our green spaces in perpetuity, at an astronomical cost to the public,” Courchesne said. “We may remove it from the greenbelt, but then trees on private land produce fruit that’s brought to public lands.”

The Greenbelt Guardians began a ligustrum control effort in 2003 and has worked with thousands of volunteers and the Austin Parks Foundation to help control the  plant, said Glee Ingram, the Guardians’ founder. Volunteers typically remove smaller plants with a tool called a “weed wrench,” which has a claw and a lever that wraps around stems and rips the roots from the ground, Courchesne said. Contractors will cut down larger trees and use a herbicide spot treatment on the base of the trunk to prevent further spread. Strickland said that the chemical does not affect anything else around it.

The Wildflower Center holds workshops around Texas every year to teach people how to identify ligustrum and report it to be removed. Strickland said that the plant is on the center’s “dirty dozen” list of species that need to be managed and controlled.

Courchesne said the best path to eradicating ligustrum would be legislation prohibiting the sale and distribution of the species, which has affected most of Texas. Strickland said the ligustrum’s popularity with gardeners, plus the clout of the horticulture industry, would likely prevent such legislation. She also is doubtful that the plant would be added to the Texas Department of Agriculture’s “noxious weeds” list, which would also prevent the species from being sold or distributed.

“Ligustrum would be a very hard battle because it has a pretty strong market in the horticultural industry,” said Strickland, who is also part of the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council. “There would be so much backlash that it’d be very, very unlikely that they would even propose that species.”

Still, Courchesne and his fellow ligustrum fighters try to be optimistic. “We’re hoping that there’s a movement bigger than us that gets something in the works that helps us in this initiative,” he said. “But we feel like we’re a little on our own fighting this uphill battle.”