People say ridding their properties of tansy ragwort is a continuing battle. Some call the plant a curse.
Tansy ragwort is a Class B noxious weed, meaning it is a high priority for removal and is toxic to animals and humans. Some consider tansy ragwort and Scotch broom — another yellow-flowered invasive plant — to be equally frustrating to get rid of.
Tansy ragwort is particularly harmful to small farms and those with horses. Rosemary Collins, owner of Pony Up Rescue for Equines in Olalla, said it must be pulled out as soon as it’s noticed, and she hopes her neighbors do the same.
“If an animal — horse, goat, cattle, llama — is hungry and there isn’t any other available forage, anything becomes fair game to fill their hungry belly,” Collins said. “So if this is the only thing available, it could be eaten and have disastrous results.”
Collins said she’s seen a huge amount in Kitsap this year, specifically along roadsides in South Kitsap and the sides of Highway 16.
The plant can also go to seed after the animal defecates. It pops up in any open area and likes to grow in gravelly poor soil, but it will also do well in good soil. It also loves roadsides, said Dana Coggon, noxious weed coordinator for Kitsap County.
When trees are harvested and there is bare land, tansy and other noxious weeds like Scotch broom take over. Since this area is a temperate climate, tansy has been seen blooming as early as January and as late as December. It’s also possible for tansy to germinate several times throughout the year, with climate change only making the problem worse, Coggon explained.
In the past decade, Kitsap County has slowed its use of herbicides, some of which — like glyphosate — have been shown to have harmful effects on health and the environment. Coggon says this a good thing, however, it also makes it much harder to rid the land of invasives.
“It’s a really vicious cycle,” Coggon said. “If you don’t get to the one plant, the one plant can turn into probably an acre within about two years if you don’t manage it.”
Phil Hunter, who owns Wreath Works Christmas Tree Farm in South Kitsap, says he feels the county and state were once aggressive in their eradication of tansy, but he feels that the effort has fallen by the wayside
“Personally I feel the increase in invasive weeds like tansy, is directly related to both the county and state reducing, restricting or eliminating the use of glyphosate.”
Hunter feels that the fear over glyphosate has caused a knee-jerk reaction. He’s been fighting tansy on his family-run tree farm since 1975.
“When we first purchased the property, there were areas that you almost couldn’t walk through when it was in bloom,” he said.
The plant’s toxins don’t cause immediate death but build up in the liver and can eventually cause cirrhosis. Some people get a rash and irritation after touching the plant with bare hands, so gloves are recommended when removing it.
“It’s like a pandemic in its own sense,” Coggon said. “If we don’t address it and contain and solve the problem, it will become worse.”
A bad outbreak of the plant occurred about five years ago, Coggon said, and if people didn’t take care of the problem then, it’s only gotten worse. Large amounts of tansy are popping up this year because of what Coggon describes as the perfect environmental conditions.
Another big challenge this year has posed is the reduced staff of the Kitsap Noxious Weed Control Board. The program gets $2 per parcel to manage noxious weeds across the county.
“For less than a cup of coffee a year we treat over 6,000 noxious weed sites a year,” Coggon said.
It’s the responsibility of the landowner to manage tansy on their property, though normally the noxious weed board has helped landowners with this task, Coggon said. Workers would go to the property and treat the rosettes before flowering. A “tansy taxi” would come to take bagged tansy away so the landowner doesn’t have to take it to the dump. However, with COVID-19 cutting staffing by 50%, that service has been paused.
Coggon encourages people to pull tansy ragwort if they’re able. They can be hard to notice as seedlings, but when mature, the plant sprouts yellow flowers on top. Seeds from the invasive plant are viable for two to five years. This means a five-year management plan will be needed to rid an area of tansy ragwort.
“It’s not until the second year that you look out and then you see a sea of yellow. I kind of refer to it as a tansy typhoon,” Coggon said.
It’s not recommended to burn the plant because the toxins may be released into the air. If the plant is cut, mowed, or dug up with any part of the root system remaining in the ground, it will come back with vengeance, Coggon said. Once pulled from the ground it should be put in a bag and thrown in the garbage, not the compost bin or yard waste bin, she said.
“For every one plant it has thousands of seeds,” she said. “I use the tagline one a day keeps a million away.”
Some recall their days as youngsters pulling the weeds for punishment or as a chore. One person has a family party every year to clean it out of the horse pasture, spending two to four hours out in the field. Others said they’ve seen livestock die after consuming too much tansy ragwort. Coggon also has concerns that gleaners and farmers may confuse tansy for kale, because they look similar when tansy isn’t flowering.
Mark Butler said he’s hated tansy most of his life, starting with his job of pulling it with all the other grandkids at his grandfather’s fields.
“We’d do neighbors fields. We’d do it in the fields of other people that my grandfather would cut for hay,” Butler said. “He had several horses and cattle and knew of the livestock of others dying from it.”
Later in his life, while working at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Butler would run on base and pull tansy from the ground as he passed. After three years, there were no more clumps of tansy on any of his routes, he said.
“Maybe a stray once in a while but I’d gotten most of it by then. Co-workers even commented on the loony toon that would pull the stuff up and throw it out in the road so it wouldn’t be so likely to go to seed and regrow,” he said.
Now Butler has his own 5-acre farm and said he feels ashamed when he sees even a single plant on his land.
“I’m chagrined that I’m unable to keep tansy out of my neighbors’ yards and fields let alone the nearby road,” Butler said.
He said he believes it’s an invasive weed that can be totally eradicated through effort. After that, he says, society can move on to eradicate other invasives like English ivy and Scotch broom.
“We owe it to the nature we’ve messed up, and it’s doable,” he said.
The plant likely came from Europe as an ornamental plant — a reminder of the home settlers came from. It spread and moved, even more so as agriculture expanded, and is now an invasive plant harmful to the native ecosystem and wildlife.
“My hope is we as citizens or community members start pitching in to pull it out. A little effort goes a long way with all invasive species and noxious weeds,” Coggon said. She wants people to know that since the noxious weed board is currently understaffed and underfunded, they may not be able to remove as much tansy as is needed, and it will likely go to seed.