Culture Fail: Let’s Plant Giant Invasive Flammable Reeds in Oregon!

Arundo donax. Photo courtesty of Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources. Photographer: Chuck Bargeron, The University of Georgia

Picture this: A plant that can grow four inches in a single day and reach 30 feet in height. It can grow in floodplains, riverbanks, or drainage ditches in pretty much any soil condition. Its rapid growth rate, and the fact that it can spread from a single piece of root that floats downstream for miles, contributes to its success. It’s also extremely flammable and instigates fires in Southern California—but it recovers quickly afterwards, unlike everything else which burns to the ground around it.

Its clones cover acres of land, replacing vibrant plant communities. Because it provides no food or habitat to native species, these vast areas are devoid of wildlife—no birds nest in their branches, and no animals graze on their leaves. To prevent it from spreading, the only practical method is to chop these plants down and then cover them with toxic herbicides.

This is the giant reed (Arundo donax), a native of India that has spread across the country. It’s deemed invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama, and South Carolina; Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and California all list it as a noxious weed. California has spent more than $70 million in efforts to control it, but its distribution map in the state looks like a game of Risk that any sensible player would forfeit. Earlier this year, the USDA called it a “highly invasive grass” and a “serious environmental weed.” It’s made the top 100 worst invasive list published by the Global Invasive Species Database.

So guess who’s planting it in Oregon? Portland General Electric (yes, the same company that once built a $450 million nuclear power plant so unsafe and broken that it earned the distinction of being the only plant of its type that had to be carted away and buried whole). The company plans to grow giant reed as a source of biomass fuel to replace coal. Ninety acres of it were planted in May at a test site in Morrow County. The plants reportedly did quite well.

This is no unique example of stupidity. This is how invasive species get somewhere new—people think it’s a grand idea. We’ve all seen that episode of The Simpsons where the city plans to import Chinese Needle Snakes to kill invasive tree lizards, and then plans to bring in snake-eating gorillas to solve the snake problem. The gorilla problem will solve itself, says Skinner: “When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.”

This latter sentence, tragically, seems to be the plan for the giant reed. The cooler temperatures in Oregon will serve as a “natural barrier.” The plant can’t flower this far north—so it can only spread via root fragments. Root fragments. Such as a tiny bit of plant mass that breaks off from a riverbank and travels 10 miles downstream to a new location. But that could never happen. Could it?

by Jen Matteis