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Weed warriors on the watch

Alberta's weed witch has spotted a new invasive plant near St. Albert's grain elevators. It was pouring rain Friday morning when Maureen Vadnais rolled into town.

Alberta's weed witch has spotted a new invasive plant near St. Albert's grain elevators.

It was pouring rain Friday morning when Maureen Vadnais rolled into town. Vadnais, known to many as the Weed Witch, was there with city arbourist Kevin Veenstra to confirm the presence of an invasive weed.

Vadnais trains weed inspectors for Alberta Agriculture, which is how she got her nickname. It didn't come with any mystic powers, she says, although she wishes it did. "I'd wave my magic wand and get rid of them all," she says of weeds.

Vadnais has been busy training inspectors to spot the 46 weeds on the province's new prohibited noxious list. The list is part of the new Weed Control Act, which kicked in June 16.

She identified a long patch of yellow, daisy-like flowers by the railroad tracks near the grain elevators as one of those weeds: tansy ragwort. "We're looking at the leaves and they're very sharply defined," she says, with deep lobes and sharp, scalloped edges. The stems also had red stripes on them. Most telling of all were the flowers — unlike the common tansy, which has yellow, button-like blossoms, this one had small bulbs with ray-like petals on it.

Tansy ragwort produces thousands of fluffy seeds that spread and take over disturbed areas, Vadnais says. Alkaloids in the plant attack the livers of livestock when eaten, killing them over time. These plants have to be destroyed under provincial law. Common tansy, which is on the noxious list, merely has to be contained.

The fact that this weed was found by a railroad is worrisome, adds Veenstra. "It could be all up and down the province."

No giant hogs here

Veenstra says he's been getting many calls about giant hogweed, another plant on the prohibited list.

Giant hogweed hit the news this week after local papers and the CBC reported its presence in eastern Canada. There have been no confirmed sightings of it in the city or the province, say Vadnais and Veenstra.

It would be hard to miss the weed if it were in town — it's about five metres tall, has an inch-wide stalk and jagged leaves bigger than most people. It also has a large umbrella of white blossoms at its peak and big red blotches on its stalk. "Once you see it," Veenstra says, "it'll make your mouth drop."

The weed's sap can cause severe chemical burns and blindness in people on contact, Vadnais says, so it should not be touched without gloves. Anyone who suspects they've found one should contact public works or an agricultural fieldsman to remove it.

Giant hogweed is often confused with its native cousin, cow parsnip, Vadnais says, which has similar flowers but grows just three meters tall. Although edible, cow parsnip can cause skin irritation and should be handled with gloves.

Weed warriors, assemble!

City crews have been busy this week pulling other weeds on the provincial list such as purple loosestrife and Himalayan balsam, Veenstra says.

The city is asking for the public's help to pull these and other weeds from the Sturgeon River on July 23 as part of its second annual Weed Warrior event, Veenstra says. Residents will get to help pull Canada thistle from the River's Edge Enhancement Project planting near St. Albert Centre. "It's really hard to get chemicals in there, so we're going to hand-pull the thistle."

The event runs from 2 to 4 p.m. by the tall wooden post near the footbridge over the river. Participants should wear long sleeves and gloves. Call the Office of the Environment at 780-459-1735 for details.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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