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The Scoop on Weeds

Whilst some ecologists may argue the details, we can think of weeds as invasive species that pose serious threats to both the natural environment and primary production industries.

Whether in Australia or elsewhere in the world, weeds are widely recognized as having major economic, environmental and social impacts. They cause damage to wild landscapes, agricultural lands, waterways and coastal areas.

Terrestrial weeds are a problem to the land (and those who rely on it, human and non-human alike), while aquatic weeds can pose major challenges to the health of water systems – from mangroves to mountain streams.

According to the Australian Government’s Environment website, a weed is any plant that requires action to reduce its effect – ie. negative impact – on the environment, economy, and human health. As invasive species, many plants introduced into Australia over the past 200 years have now assumed the status of weeds.

So how does this happen? How can a plant that is harmless in one part of the world become a pest elsewhere?

Well, the adaptiveness and resilience of the plant is a key factor, as is the plant’s capacity to produce large numbers of seeds (readily spread by mammals, birds, breezes, water etc). Importantly, weeds tend to thrive in degraded or disturbed areas and are commonly the first species to colonise and dominate such environments.

Many of Australia’s weeds are exotic. From Scotch Broom and Madagascar Ragwort, to Lantana and the Water Orchid – whilst introduced weeds might not have a lengthy history in this country, Australia now faces a weed crisis. From Blackberry to Corkwood, these invasive plants are now spreading faster than they can be controlled. This is not least because the management of such weeds is proving complex and expensive, exacerbated by climate change and a lack of public awareness.

It’s important to note, however, that not all weeds are exotic (ie. non-native to a country). Indeed, native species within Australia have been known to persist in ecosystems in which they did not previously exist. Various wattles, for example, might well be Australian natives, but depending on their distribution, they might also be a weed.

A key thing to remember is that weeds can inhabit virtually any environment – from towns and cities, through to oceans, lakes, deserts, forests and mountain areas. According to the Australian government, “Some weeds are of particular concern and, as a result, have been listed for priority management or in legislation”. When a weed is listed as a “Weed of National Significance” (WONS), it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep an eye out, report infestations, and / or engage in the active treatment of the weed.

But why are weeds such a big deal? Why should we really care?

Well, in Australia, like elsewhere, weeds can be nasty blighters that displace native species and contribute significantly to land degradation. In Australia, the principle driver for weed control is to two-fold: to protect natural ecosystems and ensure healthy environments for primary production on both private and public land. Both environmentally and economically, they can be a real pain for farmers because weed infestations invariably reduce farm productivity and almost always take time and money to resolve.

Most people have weeds in their backyard without even knowing it! In Australia, ornamentals such as the Agapanthus and Rhodondron are classic examples. The short of the long story, however, is that it’s important to remember that just because a plant looks lovely, it might not be good for our environment, economy, or the health of our people.

To find out more about weeds in your own area, check out the national weed list in your country. This should be available through government sources, in particular the website for your local, state or national environment management authority. In Australia, you can find out more about weeds of national significance by visiting: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/weeds/weeds/lists/index.html

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