Thursday, April 28, 2011

Researcher with U of I Energy Biosciences Institute seeks help to locate escaped Miscanthus

Researcher with U of I Energy Biosciences Institute seeks help to locate escaped Miscanthus

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If you live in east central Illinois, you may know the name “Miscanthus” as it applies to a hybrid species of this Asian grass, which is the subject of long-term research as a biofuel at the University of Illinois. But if you have ever laid eyes on Miscanthus, you are likely to have seen one of the two parent species of that hybrid, both of which have long been used as ornamentals in the United States.

As an ornamental, Miscanthus may seem like a landscaper’s dream. It thrives without supplemental water and tolerates a wide range of other growing conditions. Its long, flowing leaves, which emerge directly from the ground, give the impression of a fountain, and its feathery seed heads provide an added attraction by the end of summer.

Unfortunately, where ornamental varieties of Miscanthus escape cultivation, the landscaper’s dream can morph into the land manager’s nightmare. Naturalized populations of Miscanthus can crowd out native vegetation, and they serve North American wildlife poorly. They can also be expensive and time-consuming to eradicate. [Photo: US Forest Service wildlife biologist Mike Brod surveying a Miscanthus invasion in a rare and sensitive mountain bog habitat in northern Georgia. Courtesy of Lauren Quinn.]

How widespread are populations of naturalized Miscanthus in the United States? That’s a good question, to which there is no good answer at present. But Lauren Quinn is working on it.

Quinn, a researcher with the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois, is an invasive plant ecologist. She studies how nonnative plants affect the native plants, animals and other components of ecosystems where they become established. Currently, she is collaborating with UI faculty members Tom Voigt and Bryan Endres, along with a colleague from Virginia Tech, Jacob Barney, to describe the distribution of naturalized Miscanthus populations in the state and around the country.

Here’s where you come in. If you’re conservation minded and competent at plant identification, or you’re capable of taking identifiable digital photographs of plants, Quinn wants you to notify her if you come across Miscanthus growing outside of cultivation.

Of course, unless you’re more familiar with perennial grasses than most people, you’ll need to study up on the subject a bit to become involved with this project. For that purpose, let me direct you to the resources at the Website Quinn has put together:

Quinn says she is looking for Miscanthus in “natural areas,” but she defines that very broadly to include just about anyplace outside of intentional cultivation, from roadsides and pastures, to forest openings and stream corridors. She emphasizes that she is looking for plants that have established themselves at a distance from intentional plantings and become self-sustaining. (So one or two volunteer plants growing on the same property where their parent plants are cultivated wouldn’t count.)

If you should locate Miscanthus established in a natural area, following are the things Quinn would most like to have: a photo (or photos), for purposes of identification and population size estimate; location, with GPS coordinates if possible, but otherwise a road name with reference to nearby cross roads or landmarks; and a description of the habitat—for example, roadside, pasture, etc.

Quinn would also be happy for other information where it is known, including contact information for property owners if the Miscanthus is on private property, the age of the population, possible sources for it, and even the age of those plantings.

Over the course of the next two summers, Quinn and her colleagues will be visiting populations of escaped Miscanthus to collect data on them. Ultimately, they hope to answer the question of which types of Miscanthus pose the greatest risk of escape, and under what environmental conditions.