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Notes from a Musky Trail Hiker #6: Magic Relighting Candles

A regular blog sharing a biology observation from my hike on the Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area trail in Asbury.

-Tish Lascelle, MWA President


It’s true that September is my birthday month, but that’s not why I’ve been thinking about those magic relighting birthday candles. Let’s face it, these days, no one wants to eat cake that someone just blew on once, let alone many times.

So why am I talking about trick candles when this is a blog allegedly about the Musky Trail? Because there is – dun, dun, dun – Japanese Knotweed along the trail! Aaack! Japanese Knotweed is a pack of Magic Candles in the riveting world of plants – virtually impossible to extinguish. It is non-native (“Japanese” in the name probably gave that away), and a particular threat along rivers. It spreads rapidly, and crowds out natives. The ground underneath knotweed tends to be bare, making it susceptible to erosion. Its presence gradually degrades aquatic habitat and water quality.

The river also helps it spread to new locations. That’s because knotweed is female – no seeds. In its I-don’t-need-a-man-superiority, it happily spreads and propagates madly through rhizomes. “You mess with my tiny rhizomes, and I will gladly move just one of them and form a new fully functional plant somewhere that annoys you more.”

A flood on the river can take rhizomes down to new river banks. Cut it down and throw it on a mulch pile? Congratulations, you’ve just made another patch of knotweed.

This is the time of year when knotweed is especially easy to see – it’s very tall, has big, heart-shaped green leaves, hollow red stems and distinctive creamy white feathery flowers that grow atop the leaves. In botanist-speak, they use weird words like membranous sheath, broadly ovate and winged fruits, so just look at the picture.

If you drive Route 287 North from Bridgewater right now, you will easily spot tons of knotweed in the median and on the shoulder. And if you think you have some on your property, don’t do anything without first reading up on it! This plant is the stuff of nightmares. Scanning a few internet articles produced these descriptors: relentless killer instinct, indestructible scourge, unstoppable, trail of mayhem, and overlord super-villain.

Or is it just a stigma?

Like most things, go deep enough on the internet (past the lawyer-sponsored pages – more on that later) and there are other points of view that’s it’s not so bad. The Penn State Extension Center points out that the young shoots in spring are edible, honeybees love the flowers and there are herbal applications for the plant, including a Lyme disease treatment.

But they still said, “[the] widespread and highly negative effects should be considered alongside any argument for its overall value.”

Knotweed is extremely persistent even after years of repeated, costly removal attempts. In the UK, pieces of knotweed have to be handled as hazardous waste, and there is a healthy solicitor pool willing to file suits against home sellers and neighbors. Homes have become unsellable without a ‘knotweed management program’ in place because banks are reluctant to give mortgages where there is knotweed. Note the word ‘management’ because true eradication is virtually impossible. One of the best articles I read on knotweed is this one from the National Park Service.

So anyway, we have some on the Musky Trail – right at the beginning of the trail near the information sign. You can’t exactly see it because MWA’s summer groundskeeper spotted it and set about to try and control it through solarization, which involves covering the area with a black tarp and starving the plant of water and sunlight. We’ll have some success, but it will test our patience as the roots are very deep and a piece of the plant (about the size of a thumbnail) will live on to erupt another day. We’ll just have to be more persistent than the knotweed.

Magic relighting candles are way more fun.


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