Maryland has become ground zero for a new invasive species threat, wavyleaf basketgrass

After a recent hike through Patapsco Valley State Park, Baltimore teacher Greg Schnitzlein's jaw dropped as he watched his two dogs emerge from the woods looking, as he says, like Chia Pets, every inch of their fur slathered in sproutlike seeds.

Vanessa B. Beauchamp, a Towson University biology professor who happened to be in the parking lot, could hardly believe it. Those seed-covered dogs underscored the futility of the fight she has waged for years against an odd, sticky plant called wavyleaf basketgrass.


By allowing the plant's seeds to hitch onto their fur, the pets had become the latest unwitting culprits, helping the invasive foliage continue its march across Maryland, where it threatens to take the top spot on the region's "most wanted" list of dangerous plants.

"It's a scary plant," says Beauchamp, who specializes in invasive species. "A bit of a monster. It's not charismatic like a snake fish and it's not affecting street trees like the emerald ash borer. But it's radically changing this habitat, and we just don't know what long-term impact that will have."


Maryland has become a focus for the wavyleaf basketgrass infestation. No one knows how the plant got here from its native Southeast Asia. But researchers figure it somehow first took root in Patapsco Valley State Park, where they've found more of it than anywhere else.

Landing there, in a heavily trafficked park popular with hikers, bicyclists, dog walkers and horse riders, has proved quite fortuitous for a plant that relies on people and animals to thrive.

In the northern portion of the park that pushes into Carroll County, the McKeldin Area, one doesn't have to venture very far down the steep, winding Switchback Trail before encountering wavyleaf basketgrass, growing low and lush in plain sight, nestling under the canopy of tulip poplars, beeches, maple and hickory.

The plant's name comes from rich green leaves that ripple, appearing almost bumpy, like pea pods. The stems are hairy. And during seeding time — autumn — spikes appear, jutting into the air. Each spike carries seeds coated in a gluey substance.


Beauchamp, who's been studying and tracking the grass, pointed to thickets of it while hiking the trail one recent morning. "You can just see all of the seeds," she says. "See the light hitting it?"

Dozens of seeds clung to each spike. And in just this one stretch of the trail, it's plain to see there are untold millions of spikes, carrying who knows how many seeds, just waiting for someone or something to brush by.

With only the softest, glancing touch, the seeds grab hold and don't let go.

Beauchamp trailed her fingers delicately along the tips of the spikes. When she pulled her hand back, seeds covered it like freckles. They'd also found a way onto the cuffs of her corduroy pants, her shoe laces, her work boots.

Usually when she's studying the plant, the professor will strap on painters' coveralls as if she were working at a hazmat site. She has shoes that she wears for nothing other than wading through wavyleaf basketgrass. At the end of the day, before she gets into her truck, she'll spend a half-hour stripping off the suit, bagging the special boots and picking off pods.

"You get it on your boot, you get it on your bike," she says. "You let one dog run through it, and in 30 seconds they're covered in seeds. You get it in your car and take it to the next place you go hike."

An amateur botanist first discovered the plant about 15 years ago along a horse trail that winds along the Patapsco River near Old Court Road in Baltimore County. He sent a sample away for testing and waited three years to find out he'd run into a first for the United States: Oplismenus hirtellus.

No one paid it much mind until nearly 10 years later, when Marc Imlay, a conservationist in Prince George's County, discovered it all over again, in Little Paint Branch Park. When he alerted Kerrie L. Kyde, the invasive-species specialist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, Kyde checked back on the original site.

"Instead of little bitty patches, it was carpet," she says, recounting her shock at realizing that the grass now solidly blanketed more than 100 acres. "Everything that's green on the ground is wavyleaf basketgrass."

At first, Kyde — Maryland's first line of defense against the invader — thought she could lick it. She thought that with a little time, a little money and a lot of getting down in the dirt, she could nip the problem quite literally in the bud before it spread to other states.

But she was wrong.

In 2007, Kyde dug in, applying for grant after grant, getting lucky with some, passed over by most. She rallied people in similar environmental roles across the region, forming a task force to share information and plot a unified attack. She spoke at community meetings until she was hoarse.

Over a three-year fight, she spent $150,000, mainly to attack the plant with herbicide. Volunteers supplemented the spraying, on their hands and knees in the forest, pulling plants out by the root with blistered hands.

But last year, even Kyde had to concede that the plant had won. She grudgingly waved the white flag.

"It's very disheartening," she says. "You spend a lot of time and energy and effort, and you keep losing. It beats you.

"It's going to escape. On my watch. I feel responsible for that. Though I'm not, obviously."

In addition to the mother lode in Patapsco Valley State Park and Liberty Reservoir, wavyleaf basketgrass has been spotted in Soldiers Delight in Baltimore County, Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in Clarksville, Little Paint Branch Park and Greenbelt Park in Prince George's. It has crossed the state line, too, into Washington's Rock Creek Park and Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and Great Falls Park.

Those are just the government-owned sites. The plant has also spread through hundreds of acres of private land.

Though Delaware and Pennsylvania consider themselves safe so far, officials are on the lookout.

Before the emergence of wavyleaf basketgrass, the plant atop environmentalists' "most wanted" list, the biggest threat to forests, was Japanese stilt grass.

Another infiltrator from Asia, Japanese stilt grass crept into the United States 100 years ago, a seed or two hiding in a container of Japanese porcelain. The infestation began in Tennessee, but it has spread to every state east of the Mississippi, where in as little as three years after its arrival, it can completely overtake native vegetation, change the soil makeup and leave the habitat in upheaval.

Wavyleaf basketgrass will be worse, experts fear.

"We realized this species is the worst, most damaging non-native plant in the eastern United States," says Imlay, who recently came out of retirement to become a ranger for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, where he's charged with fighting invasive species in Prince George's County. "You go out in the field, and you see it increasing each year. Where it spreads there's no other plants. It's just so dramatic. It's just so obvious."


Experts say it's only a matter of time before it finds a way to the mountains, the Piedmont and the coastal plains.


And it will prosper in all of these locations because it's not only hardy, sticky and fast-growing — it's vampire-esque.

Unlike most plants that require light to exist, wavyleaf basketgrass thrives in the dark. Sunlight, in fact, repels it. In the thick of a forest, that's bad news.

"Normally, as a forest grows up and closes in, a lot of invasive species will eventually just die out," Beauchamp says. "But something like this is not going anywhere."

Though Kyde has said the grass beat her in Maryland, that's mainly because her arsenal had been depleted. With more money, she's pretty sure she could ultimately win.

"I need between one [million] and two million dollars and five to 10 years," she says. "And we could wipe it out. It's really a pittance when you think about."

But it's a pittance that she's been unable to get, despite repeated appeals to politicians, foundations — everyone she, Imlay and others have tried.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture used to fund a program for fighting invasive species. But that money dried up as the agency shifted its focus to food safety and security. Foundations still offer grants, but the competition for money is fierce.

"We tried," Imlay says. "Senators and representatives and everyone says it's just not in the budget. It's very frustrating.

"I think at the next National Governors Association meeting, all the governors of all the states should get together and tell Governor [Martin] O'Malley [president of the group], 'Keep this out of our states.' You can quote me on that."

Imlay continues to pull plants when he sees them. Kyde posts warning signs at state parks that hikers and others mainly ignore. This weekend, Beauchamp planned an experiment to verify that hikers with dogs were indeed making matters worse — she put out a call for folks to bring their dogs to Patapsco Valley State Park to run them through the grass on purpose, for science.

The poster pup for those notices? Schnitzlein's seed-covered husky, Sophie, whom the professor photographed the other day.

If nothing else, she hopes those pet owners will learn to recognize the grass and steer clear of it in the future.

Kyde, though, is still hoping money will somehow come through.

"People are so worried about their jobs. What's happening in their forests is not at the front of their mind — I understand that," she says. "But if we all are a little more aware of the potential long-term repercussions of our horticulture choices, we can go a long way to protecting what has been here, what is supposed to be here and what was here a long time before people were here."

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