Weed specialist warning Whatcom County about pretty little pest

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 23, 2014 

Fig buttercup has shiny, heart-shaped leaves and small, bright-yellow flowers, but the pretty plant is an invasive weed known for blanketing the ground and pushing out native life.

Also known as lesser celandine, the low-growing plant is showing up more and more in parks, along waterways and in yards in Whatcom County. It isn't toxic.

"It seems like it's becoming an urban problem," said Laurel Baldwin, coordinator for the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board. "The problem is it's really cute and people are trading it around."

Native to Europe and North Africa, fig buttercup was introduced to North America as a garden ornamental but has escaped and is crowding out native plants.

It grows densely early in spring. When the plant dies back by June, it leaves behind a crowded network of underground roots and tubers that prevent other plants from growing, according to the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board.

Lesser celandine reproduces by seed, bulblets and underground tubers.

Bulblets and tubers can be spread easily when the soil around them is disturbed or moved. The bulblets, which grow on the stems, also can be spread by floodwater and heavy rain.

"It's spreading unchecked because people don't know," Baldwin said. "It's been running sort of rampant in the city parks."

The plant has dark-green leaves that are heart-shaped to kidney-shaped. They are up to 1.5 inches long.

The yellow flowers - usually with eight petals - are about an inch in diameter. They come out in March or April.

Baldwin talks about walking one site infested by the noxious weed and seeing a carpet of emerald green with beautiful yellow dots everywhere.

She knows the plants are cute, but what they do to native life isn't.

When the plant pulls back, it leaves behind bare ground and that, in turn, creates erosion problems.

Lesser celandine has been added to the 2014 Whatcom County Noxious Weed List.

Baldwin has been fielding phone calls about the plant, which also has been reported at Lincoln Park in Blaine.

"It's just starting to bloom now. The more sunny days, the more warm days we get it will be coming into peak bloom here," she said.

"It's adorable. I'm not kidding," she added. "Nobody transplants ugly things."

MORE ON LESSER CELANDINE

-- Additional information about what's also known as fig buttercup is on the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board website at co.whatcom.wa.us/publicworks/weeds. Select "Education" on the left side of the page to learn more about the plant, including specifics on controlling it. Or call 360-715-7470.

-- Controlling it will require persistence. A small patch of the plant can be controlled by digging it out by hand. Make sure to remove as much of the plant - including all root material, bulblets and tubers - as possible. Put the plant into a bag, seal it and throw it away. Don't compost the plants.

-- To keep it from spreading lawn to lawn, hose down your lawnmower between patches of yard.

-- Herbicides with the active ingredient glyphosate are effective in controlling, but not necessarily eradicating, lesser celandine. They must be applied at specific times and could harm or kill other plants.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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