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February 08, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Today's worst weed: slender false brome Today's worst weed: slender false brome (February 08, 2006)

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

The soft, pretty grass growing in clumps under the redwood trees of Thornewood Open Space Preserve doesn't look like a villain.

But watch out! Slender false brome may look innocent, but it is a Napoleon of grasses. Slender false brome has smothered 10,000 acres in Oregon; now it's starting in Woodside.

"We have every evidence it could do the same here," says Cindy Roessler, who watches over the vegetation on more than 50,000 acres of Peninsula land owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

Slender false brome, a perennial grass that originally came from Europe and North Africa, was first found at Thornewood two years ago. Now it has spread over about 30 acres near Schilling Lake, and is moving onto neighboring private land and along Woodside roads. There are also patches in the La Honda and El Corte de Madera open space preserves.

"It spreads along creeks, roads, trails, and even animal tracks," says Ms. Roessler as she pulls a clump out of the soft redwood soil near the green-coated pond. "It can change the ground."

One good thing, Ms. Roessler notes: The plant spreads only by seed, not underground. Seeds germinate six-to-nine months a year, but -- unlike French broom -- they only last three or four years.

Ms. Roessler recalls stopping in Corvallis, and seeing what slender false brome has done to Oregon. "It's along the road, in ditches, in meadows, in forests -- it's everywhere," she says. "That was really pretty scary.

"It's not just because a plant isn't native. We're not racist," Ms. Roessler continues. "It's because it's interrupting the ecological system. It's disturbing wildlife habitat, shading out native plants, stopping forest seedlings from growing -- all the ecological web-type impacts. That's what we're worried about.

"We want the forest to last here."

The open space district has launched an all-out campaign to stop the spread of slender false brome before it gets out of control.

"If we take care of it now while it's small, it will cost less, and our chances of success are much greater," says Ms. Roessler, who is also co-chair of the San Mateo County Weed Management Area, a volunteer group that cooperates in managing local weed problems.

Volunteers and district staff have been attacking the weed at Thornewood, by pulling it up by hand and by spraying it. A team from Gunn High School removed a fresh green carpet from under a redwood grove, and returned the ground to its natural state. Caltrans has sprayed it along La Honda Road uphill from the preserve.

Cooperation with its neighbors and the town of Woodside will be key to eliminating the invading grass, Ms. Roessler stresses, pointing up a hill where clumps are popping up on private property.

After one meeting with neighbors, Ms. Roessler reports, "Some took care of it, some want to but it's too big a project, and some don't care -- yet.

"Private property owners should care because it's going to change the beautiful redwood forest they moved here for," she warns. "If you mess with the ground in a redwood forest, you're going to change the forest plants."

The district is gearing up for a major outreach program this summer, Ms. Roessler says. It will hire a consultant to advise on the best ways to control slender false brome and to develop a program to reach a large number of people.

"We'll be coordinating with 100 or more people out there, so we want to do it right," she says.

By next year, the district expects to have a contractor who will treat the grass on people's property at the district's expense. "That's how serious our board is," Ms. Roessler says.

Meanwhile, Ms. Roessler encourages anyone who has questions about slender false brome, or who wants to identify a clump of unknown grass to call her at 691-1200. "We'll come and help identify it, and give you options," she says.

For the grass novice, false slender brome is a perennial grass with half-inch blades and tiny stiff white hairs along the edges, Ms. Roessler says. "It looks like any old grass unless you look at it closely."

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