By Sarah Schrock
There’s a menacing growth of a popular weed in the valley. When I moved here 11 years ago, I commuted to Okanogan a couple of days per week. As I drove over the Loup and descended into the Okanogan basin, I always noticed the abandoned fields of baby’s breath, and thought, “ thank goodness we don’t have that kind of invasion in the Methow.” Well, a decade later, we do.
For whatever reason, this year, the valley has seen an explosion of baby’s breath. Baby’s breath spreads by its pernicious tiny seeds that populate a single plant in the tens of thousands. The seeds are small and when the plant turns into a tumbleweed, which it does each fall, those little seeds have a roller coaster ride. Perhaps the fires from four years ago enabled the spread, or maybe the decline in grazing on valley’s foothills has unleashed the beast, or else there are simply just more vectors for its spread. Whatever the reason, it’s here and growing.
Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), for those of you unfamiliar, is a stout twiggy shrub covered in tiny white flowers. It becomes the most common tumbleweed in the fall. The plant is a popular filler in ornamental bouquets, especially wedding bouquets, as the flowers symbolize “purity and love.” The stalks of the plant grow rapidly grow from the base in the spring. During its initial growth period, the stems are soft, greenish grey, rubbery-like sprawling twigs with joints. At this stage it seems harmless – but this is the time to knock it back by cutting. Pulling is difficult, given its taproot. Give it a couple weeks and those seemingly harmless rubbery stalks become stiff, start to bloom, and before you know it the plant can be nearly 3 feet tall and wide. Once it spreads and takes over in abandoned fields and hillsides, it looks like puffy white clouds.
The name, baby’s breath, is a misnomer. In bloom, baby’s breath doesn’t have a sweet milky smell of a newborn. In fact, the smell can be quite rancid, though some report liking the odor. The plant originated from Europe and was introduced as an ornamental to North America over a century ago. It is considered a class C weed in Okanogan County and through out the West and Canada is tops the lists of invasive species.
Baby’s breath is a major global player in the cut flower industry. Perhaps we are sitting on a gold mine here just letting it tumble in the wind. It is grown commercially in warmer climates around the world. An Israeli company has genetically modified it to display different colors and is currently undergoing field trials in Kenya for the U.S. market. So, if it passes commerce laws, before we know it, the hills might be red, white and blue!
In any case, if you have baby’s breath on your land or nearby, try to control its spread. Check out the Methow Conservancy’s Weed Guide website on tips for controlling it www.methowconservancy.org/weeds_babysbreath.html.