Green Defenders Stop Medusahead Invaders

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USDA has discovered that planting wheatgrass can halt the spread of medusahead, a noxious weed in the western U.S.Medusahead was notorious as one of the worst range weeds in the Western U.S. fifty years ago, and it’s gotten even worse since then.  The weed is as nasty as its name sounds.   An invasive species, medusahead popped up in Oregon in 1903 and it’s been wreaking havoc on rangelands from North Dakota to Texas to the west coast ever since.

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Agriculturists have tried to control medusahead through burning, tilling, prescribed grazing, and the herbicide imazapic.  All have certain risks and drawbacks, and the weed has marched on…until now.  In an Oregon test area, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has planted bands of desert wheatgrass at the edge of a medusahead infestation, and so far the barriers have practically stopped the noxious weed in its tracks.

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Medusahead and Rangeland

Medusahead crowds out and kills native plants including sagebrush, squirreltail, and needlegrass, which results in a severely degraded wildlife habitat.  Particularly alarming to the fire-ravaged West is medusahead’s propensity to burn after its seasonal dieoff, and the frequent fires suppress less resistant native plants.  As for domestic animals, Medusahead’s high content of silica (a gritty mineral that wears away teeth) makes it highly unsuitable for grazing.

A Sustainable Solution for Medusahead

The wheatgrass solution shows promise, though one drawback is the possibility that it could over-compete with native species where it is planted.  The USDA will be studying that as the research project progresses.  If wheatgrass does prove both safe and effective, a similar barrier-style solution could provide the biofuel industry with a sustainable, ecologically sound way to cultivate weedy biofuel crops without letting them run rampant.

Image: Medusahead by Brett Bingham courtesy of the USDA.


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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