Vanessa Beauchamp, assistant professor in biological sciences… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
After a recent hike through Patapsco Valley State Park, Baltimore teacher Greg Schnitzlein's jaw dropped as he watched his two dogs emerge from the woods looking, as he says, like Chia Pets, every inch of their fur slathered in sproutlike seeds.
Vanessa B. Beauchamp, a Towson University biology professor who happened to be in the parking lot, could hardly believe it. Those seed-covered dogs underscored the futility of the fight she has waged for years against an odd, sticky plant called wavyleaf basketgrass.
By allowing the plant's seeds to hitch onto their fur, the pets had become the latest unwitting culprits, helping the invasive foliage continue its march across Maryland, where it threatens to take the top spot on the region's "most wanted" list of dangerous plants.
"It's a scary plant," says Beauchamp, who specializes in invasive species. "A bit of a monster. It's not charismatic like a snake fish and it's not affecting street trees like the emerald ash borer. But it's radically changing this habitat, and we just don't know what long-term impact that will have."
Maryland has become a focus for the wavyleaf basketgrass infestation. No one knows how the plant got here from its native Southeast Asia. But researchers figure it somehow first took root in Patapsco Valley State Park, where they've found more of it than anywhere else.
Landing there, in a heavily trafficked park popular with hikers, bicyclists, dog walkers and horse riders, has proved quite fortuitous for a plant that relies on people and animals to thrive.
In the northern portion of the park that pushes into Carroll County, the McKeldin Area, one doesn't have to venture very far down the steep, winding Switchback Trail before encountering wavyleaf basketgrass, growing low and lush in plain sight, nestling under the canopy of tulip poplars, beeches, maple and hickory.
The plant's name comes from rich green leaves that ripple, appearing almost bumpy, like pea pods. The stems are hairy. And during seeding time — autumn — spikes appear, jutting into the air. Each spike carries seeds coated in a gluey substance.
Beauchamp, who's been studying and tracking the grass, pointed to thickets of it while hiking the trail one recent morning. "You can just see all of the seeds," she says. "See the light hitting it?"
Dozens of seeds clung to each spike. And in just this one stretch of the trail, it's plain to see there are untold millions of spikes, carrying who knows how many seeds, just waiting for someone or something to brush by.
With only the softest, glancing touch, the seeds grab hold and don't let go.
Beauchamp trailed her fingers delicately along the tips of the spikes. When she pulled her hand back, seeds covered it like freckles. They'd also found a way onto the cuffs of her corduroy pants, her shoe laces, her work boots.
Usually when she's studying the plant, the professor will strap on painters' coveralls as if she were working at a hazmat site. She has shoes that she wears for nothing other than wading through wavyleaf basketgrass. At the end of the day, before she gets into her truck, she'll spend a half-hour stripping off the suit, bagging the special boots and picking off pods.
"You get it on your boot, you get it on your bike," she says. "You let one dog run through it, and in 30 seconds they're covered in seeds. You get it in your car and take it to the next place you go hike."
An amateur botanist first discovered the plant about 15 years ago along a horse trail that winds along the Patapsco River near Old Court Road in Baltimore County. He sent a sample away for testing and waited three years to find out he'd run into a first for the United States: Oplismenus hirtellus.
No one paid it much mind until nearly 10 years later, when Marc Imlay, a conservationist in Prince George's County, discovered it all over again, in Little Paint Branch Park. When he alerted Kerrie L. Kyde, the invasive-species specialist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, Kyde checked back on the original site.
"Instead of little bitty patches, it was carpet," she says, recounting her shock at realizing that the grass now solidly blanketed more than 100 acres. "Everything that's green on the ground is wavyleaf basketgrass."
At first, Kyde — Maryland's first line of defense against the invader — thought she could lick it. She thought that with a little time, a little money and a lot of getting down in the dirt, she could nip the problem quite literally in the bud before it spread to other states.
But she was wrong.
In 2007, Kyde dug in, applying for grant after grant, getting lucky with some, passed over by most. She rallied people in similar environmental roles across the region, forming a task force to share information and plot a unified attack. She spoke at community meetings until she was hoarse.