What’s sinister about baby’s breath?

Volunteers at Elberta Beach work to eradicate baby’s breath. (Grand Traverse Conservancy District photo)

Invasive species often have ugly, dangerous, often xenophobic-sounding names. Even if a person had never heard of a sea lamprey, its name sounds like a customer you wouldn’t want to meet. The red swamp crayfish could be an escapee from a Hollywood movie set, and Asian carp and Maldovian frogbit sound more like invading hordes than fish or pond plants.

So what sounds sinister when you hear “baby’s breath?” Not much to most people – except those who know how the flower, commonly found in decorative gardens and wedding bouquets, is threatening Michigan’s Great Lakes sand dunes.

In Sleeping Bear Dunes and other locations along Michigan’s west coast, this plant escaped a bouquet-tossing ceremony or went to seed in a flower bed sometime in the past and the scattered seeds took root in Michigan’s unique dunes environment.

Michigan’s dunes have never been and shouldn’t be a stable environment. Erosion from wind and rain threatens the landscape across much of the upper Midwest. Farms are managed, construction areas are protected, even private property owners strive to keep a cover of plant life on exposed soils to hold the soil particles in place.

There’s no such thing as a stable dune. They are unique in providing a shifting landscape of drifting, blowing, building and eroding environment along our windy Great Lakes shores. There are plenty of natural plants, but even these come and go over decades of natural dune movements.

Native to Russia and eastern Europe, once baby’s breath took root in the dune’s landscape, the winds only served to spread the seeds. A single plant soon became several, then a patch, and eventually, in some areas, baby’s breath took over entire dunes.

While doing so, they crowd out native vegetation and just as keeping plants on healthy soils keeps it from eroding, the dune’s sands are held in place, secured from erosive forces. In time, the dune’s sandy soil, actually changes, gains organic material and can host other, non-indiginous plant life. Instead of a dunescape, gradually changing as years, decades and centuries pass, what is left is a stablized hill of sandy soil covered by non-indiginous plant life.

Workers are striving to eradicate baby’s breath at Sleeping Bear Dunes and other locations, but the only two effective methods are hand-cutting and actually digging down to severe the taproot – time consuming and expensive – and by applying herbicides. There are no baby’s breath selective chemicals, so even the herbicides have to be hand applied to keep from spraying and killing native plants.

Unlike some invasives found in and around Michigan, this is a battle that can be won. It won’t be easy but experts feel confident that, with continued work and vigilance, baby’s breath can be confined to flower gardens and bridal bouquets.

Categories: Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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