CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "John, please help me weed."
"Mom, I hate to weed. Why do we have all of these flowerbeds? Why don't you just let the weeds take over?"
"John, please pull the vines from the trees along the edge of the woods and use the weed eater to cut them very close to the ground to try to kill them."
"Mom, I hate to pull vines and run the weed eater. Why do we care if they are in the trees? Why don't you just let those vines take over?"
Typical conversation. Every summer. Without fail.
Then came the summer of 2011. My son John, a wildlife biology major at Auburn University, researched summer jobs online and found something interesting with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. He called from school in Alabama to tell me he landed a job as a "weed field scout," and he would be traveling across the state in search of weeds.
He went to work for David A. Dick, agricultural weed specialist, Plant Industries, Agricultural Pest Survey Programs Unit of the state Department of Agriculture. He received training, and then they equipped him (and several other weed field scouts) with a GPS, a mini computer with satellite internet connection, a camera and field gear -- plastic flash cards, papers, etc., with descriptions and photos of various invasive species.
Dick was kind enough to allow me to keep one of the flashcard flipcharts, produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's a wealth of information about invasive plants.
So from the ag department's hilltop community in Guthrie, John set forth to find weeds. The irony was not lost on me. But his enthusiasm was exciting, and he immersed himself into the project, traveling to the hinterlands to collect data for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service database.
The service is a multifaceted agency with a broad mission area that includes protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health, regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities. This supports the overall mission of the USDA, which is to protect and promote food, agriculture, natural resources and related issues.
Each of the summer data collectors was assigned to different counties. They focused on public access points and roadsides as well as private land, John said. They went in search of mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, common crupina, tree of heaven, multiflora rose, purple loostrife and more.
"If the species was on the hot list that we were targeting, we were looking for it. For example, if we found mile-a-minute, that was a bonus," John explained. "We were trying to locate and to get a feel for the invasion rate, the habitat, how big the site was and what environment the plants were living in. One year a certain site might be a mud hole, and the next summer it might be dried up. Habitats can change."
Checking to see if the invasives grow in changing environments was only one part of the job.
Later in the summer, John was asked to check on sites where biocontrols were being used to contain mile-a-minute.