Texas ranch infested with weed from hell


Tiny Tortoise Beetle Might Do the Trick

At the South American Biological Control Laboratory in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ARS researchers led by Daniel Gandolfo think they may have a way to halt the dramatic spread of tropical soda apple (TSA). The Gratiana boliviana, 5- to 6-millimeter-long tortoise beetle, appears to have the fecundity, longevity, and host-specificity to make it an ideal natural control agent.

The tortoise beetle, Gratiana boliviana. Photo by Peggy Greb.

In both larval and adult stages, G. boliviana beetles chew holes in the upper leaves of the plant, significantly reducing the weed's survivability.

However, before researchers could apply for U.S. release they had to make sure that G. boliviana would not devour nontarget plants.

“Since TSA is related to several widespread crops, a risk assessment had to be performed for them, particularly eggplant, Solanum melongena, the most defenseless crop in the family,” says Gandolfo.

Recent studies in Argentina and quarantine facilities in Gainesville, Florida, have eliminated eggplant as a suitable host for G. boliviana.

The tiny, iridescent beetles—of turquoise and gold—will soon be put to the test in rangelands and improved pastures across Pennsylvania, the southern United States, and Puerto Rico. — By Jesús García, formerly with ARS.

NOTE: The TSA leaf beetle was approved for field release in Florida on May 7, 2003. The initial release of G. boliviana in Florida began in May 14 in Polk County. Subsequent releases were made on June 17 in Alachua County, September 5 in Hendry County, and November 11 in Sumter County. – University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service

JASPER, Texas, July 8, 2004 (ENS): A thorny weed some call the "plant from hell" has been found on a private ranch in East Texas. The plant, known as the tropical soda apple, is on the federal noxious weed list.

It can quickly take over pastures, first displacing the grass, then the cattle, said Dr. Mary Ketchersid, Texas Cooperative Extension pesticide safety specialist.

Ketchersid said she does not want to sound like an alarmist, but the weed has caused economic disaster for agricultural producers in other states.

Native to Argentina and central Brazil, the perennial weed produces small fruit about inch in diameter, dark green with light green stripes.

When mature, tropical soda apple can reach 6 feet in height and have a stem 1 inch in diameter.

Resembling small striped watermelons, the fruit or "apples" contain more than 100 seeds and are readily eaten by cattle and wildlife, including deer, wild hogs, raccoons and birds. The seeds, which are not digested, may be quickly distributed over a wide area.

In the United States, it was first found in Florida and infested areas there increased from a couple of thousand acres to more than a million in six years.

The weed has taken over hundreds of thousands of acres in Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana.

"I think we need to be scared," Ketchersid said. "People need to be watching for it," she said.

The hope is, Ketchersid said, to contain the weed to the original site. But she warns that since it is a perennial, eradicating it is not likely to be easy.

"We have been trying to eradicate mesquite since before the 1960s, and it is still the subject of brush control programs," she said.

Landowners are advised to act promptly and enlist the help of specialists if they suspected they have the weed.

"The landowner told us in a meeting that he had probably brought it in with a load of Louisiana hay in 1998," Ketchersid said. "He has been trying to control it himself for years, and now it is a real mess."

Many treatments are likely to look good at first, killing most of the weed's foliage. But with perennials, if the herbicide isn't carried to the roots, the plant may soon recover by the next growing season.

"The control can look really good right now, but in the next year, if the roots have not died, the plant can come back," Ketchersid said.

By the time the task force learned about the Jasper infestation, it was too late in the season to follow these recommendations, said Dr. Paul Baumann, Extension weed control specialist and another member of the task force.

"We know what works in other states, but we do not know for certain what works here on our soils and environment," he said. "We want to find the most economical solution, one that uses the least amount of herbicide."


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