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Multiflora rose a thorny problem for many

by Shannon N. Shreve

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Shakespeare once wrote "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But what if that rose was called a scourge, a pest and a plague to farmers throughout the state and even the entire nation?

The multiflora rose, with its quick growth and impenetrable shrubbery, has left many West Virginia landowners who once eagerly used the word "cultivate" begging state agencies for a way to "eradicate" the plant.

Everything's coming up roses

The multiflora rose is a thorny, perennial shrub that is native to Japan, Korea and Eastern China. Beginning in May or June, it blooms clusters of fragrant white and pink flowers. In the summer rosehips, or small red fruits, appear and remain on the plant through winter.

The flower has a wide tolerance for various soil, moisture and light conditions and readily invades open woodlands, forest edges and successional fields that have been subjected to land disturbance.

Because of its easy adaptation and rapid growth, the impenetrable thickets it sometimes forms often exclude native plant species.

"It is so thick it is not allowing the light in for the natural progression in the forest. It is so obtrusive," said Jeff Wyne, who is heading a nature trail development project for Fort New Salem.

The multiflora rose was introduced to the United States in 1866 as rootstock for ornamental roses. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S. Soil and Conservation Service promoted it for use in erosion control and as "living fences" to control livestock. Millions of multiflora rose plants were brought to West Virginia and given to farmers without cost as part of the program, said Tim J. Brown, plant pathologist with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

"The qualifications were horse high, bull strong and goat resistant," he said. State conservation departments soon discovered value in multiflora rose as wildlife cover for pheasant, bobwhite quail and cottontail rabbit and as food for songbirds. More recently, multiflora rose has been planted in highway median strips to serve as crash barriers and to reduce automobile headlight glare.

Every rose has its thorn

Eventually, its unstoppable growth habit was recognized as a problem on pastures and unplowed lands, where it disrupted livestock grazing. In addition, the plant's growth lowers land value, disables recreation and can get caught in farm machinery, Brown said.

According to Brown, in the 1970s and '80s, the Agriculture Department started a spraying program and began providing farmers with tordon pellets, which contain the ingredient ticloram. The program had to be suspended because the pellets were being misapplied by some farmers and traces of ticloram were appearing in sediment and groundwater where they had the potential to stay a long time, he said.

In 1982, Bob Williams, formerly of the agriculture department and now with the Farm Bureau, formed a study and found that it would cost the state more than $40 million to eradicate the multiflora rose.

"That was much more than this department could think of spending," said Brown.

A rose by any other name ... would be safer

Though there are no exact figures for West Virginia, officials estimate there are more than 45 million multiflora rose plants in the eastern United States. And it is estimated that the average multiflora rose plant may produce a million seeds per year, which may remain viable in the soil for up to twenty years. Therefore, it is easy to see how quickly and resiliently the seed can take root, said Brown.

He said there are three main methods of eradicating the multiflora rose: Mechanical defoliation, animal grazing and poisoning the plants through pesticide and disease.

"It's up to them to make the best decision of what they can afford or deal with," said Brown.

Mechanical defoliation involves closely cutting the plants to dehabilitate photosynthesis over a period of several seasons. A 1994 study by the West Virginia University Forage Management Program found that three to six close cuttings a season for up to three consecutive seasons were required to achieve a high plant kill.

One of the most economic methods of eradication, animal grazing, is used by many area landowners. Wyne said workers on the Fort New Salem nature trail are presently using a goat to eat away areas covered by the obtrusive plant. According to the West Virginia University Extension Service, goats, as well as sheep and cattle, can be used to keep back multiflora rose growth.

The newest method of multiflora rose eradication is the introduction of rose-rosette disease to the unwanted plant population. Brown said that rose-rosette, a disease spread by wind-born mites, had naturally occurred in the state since 1989 and incidences had been reported in all 55 counties through a natural spread. Infecting multiflora roses with rose-rosette could potentially control up to 95 percent of the plant's population, he said.

One potential drawback of rose-rosette disease is possible impact on other species of roses, including ornamental roses, in the treatment area.

"We are worried about them, but our biggest concern is getting rid of the multiflora population," he said.

Multiflora roses, once lauded, are now scorned for providing the thick barriers they were distributed to create. Though the plant's future is not certain, it is perfectly clear it will not go away without exhibiting the same resilience it was valued for in the past.

Staff writer Shannon Shreve can be reached at 626-1448.

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