Invasive plants prompt eradication effort in Falmouth

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FALMOUTH — Officials say the town is being invaded.

Not by alien species or a foreign army, but by plant species like the multiflora rose, purple loosestrife, honeysuckle and bittersweet.

If they look nice, what’s the problem?

The problem, according to Bob Shafto, ombudsman of the Falmouth Open Space Committee, is that these plants degrade the natural environment around them.

“If you live on a lake, you’ve got to be worried. You don’t want to see your lake choked up with (milfoil),” Shafto said. “But living on land, the land invasives, they’re green, they flower, they’re pretty. People don’t realize that slowly and surely they are taking over some areas of town and really degrading the natural habitat of various areas and reducing the biodiversity in those places.”

According to Shafto, the problem of invasive species is throughout town, but highly concentrated closer to the coast.

“It’s mostly an east-to-west problem,” he said. “Density highest along the coast and not so bad inland. But it’s just a matter of time.”

Several invasive species have actually been planted in town to preserve the integrity of soil and infrastructure. Bittersweet was planted along Interstate 295 at highway interchanges as an ornamental plant, and multiflora rose bushes have been planted on many median strips.

The Town Council recently appropriated $18,000 ($10,000 from the unassigned fund balance and $8,000 from a grant) to the Conservation Commission to help rid the town’s conservation lands of these invasive species – a big project, Shafto said, with “a couple thousand acres of land” to manage.

“Some (of the conservation properties) are free of invasives and other places are so bad that I don’t know that we’ll ever get rid of them, not many but a few. Other places they are bad, but they are controllable and that’s where we’re starting,” he said.

The Conservation Commission has already started tackling the invasive species in the River Point Conservation Area, pulling 600-800 plants that are toxic to that habitat. Shafto said they are only about a third of the way to removing all of the invasives on the property.

The commission will employ several different methods, including the use of beetles that eat only purple loosestrife and the application of herbicides.

Shafto said he generally does not like to use chemicals, but because the problem has grown to such a scale, he understands that chemical application is the most effective, and really the only way, to get rid of the invasive plants.

“These chemicals are not harmful to the environment in any way that we know about. I’m not a chemical fan, I wouldn’t use it if I didn’t have to,” he said. “The analogy I like is that if somebody told me I had prostate cancer and the only way we’re going to get it is with chemotherapy, I’d take the chemotherapy. The herbicides we are using are the equivalent. These plants have metastasized all over town; the sheer number of them make it impossible to control them by pulling or digging them out, which would be the safest way.”

He also said the way the herbicides are being applied to the properties is important. Those licensed to apply the herbicides, including Shafto, use the smallest amount of the chemical necessary to kill the targeted plants – what amounts to a pint over 10 acres, he estimated.

Shafto said residents can get involved by educating themselves about what kind of invasive species are in their own yards, but that eradication efforts on individual property must be part of neighborhood efforts.

“Unless you try to deal with this on a neighborhood scale, you’ve got another seed source coming in (to your yard),” he said.

He also said residents should make sure town officials know that the problem exists, so that continued action may be taken on the town’s lands.

“It’s cancer and it’s at a scale now that (management) is the only choice. The other choice is to give up and say we’re going to let these things take over and say we’re not going to do anything about it,” he said. “To me that just isn’t acceptable. I don’t want to see our conservation lands turn into, biological desert is too strong a word, but to have their biological diversity diminished.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter: @croninamber.