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Green, green grass _ a little shot of horror

(ran C, T editions of B)

Lisa Von Borowsky, 88, is the last living witness to the introduction of a virulent and aggressive weed called cogongrass to Hernando County.

In the late 1930s, when Ms. Von Borowsky served as head gardener for the Chinsegut Manor House, the wife of the owner, Margaret Robins, wanted the pastures to remain green all year around.

She planted an experimental patch of cogongrass, a Southeast Asian species that had first arrived in this country as a packing material for orange plants sent from Japan to Mobile, Ala., in 1912.

Mrs. Robins had heard it was a hardy and prolific plant, as in fact, it has turned out to be. From Chinsegut Hill, about five miles north of Brooksville, it has spread to parts of the Withlacoochee State Forest, to mine bottoms and even to the lawns of unsuspecting homeowners. Drivers throughout the county who notice an especially tall, bright-green grass along the highways are probably seeing cogongrass.

Some of the qualities that made it attractive for Mrs. Robins' purposes are exactly what make it such a problem. It can reproduce by its roots and though its seedhead, which is shaped something like a cattail's and is packed with as many as 3,000 seeds.

Once established, said Lori Hazel, forester for the Division of Forestry center north of Brooksville, cogongrass forms a thick net of roots that can extend as far as five feet below the surface. There is even evidence that cogongrass emits toxins into the soil, essentially clearing itself a space to expand.

"This would be classified not as a defense mechanism, but as an offensive mechanism. I don't know if there's anything else like this in the plant world. It's extremely aggressive," said Tommy Bailey, who is researching the plant's eradication at the Ocala National Forest.

Besides its susceptibility to cold weather, which has spared the North from cogongrass, all the plant's characteristics combine to make it extremely fast-spreading and difficult to destroy.

"I recently heard a statement that cogongrass is the No. 1 problem worldwide as far as being a noxious weed," he said.

But it is an especially severe problem in Hernando County for several reasons, Hazel said.

"I've been seeing it all over," the county's Environmental Planner Kathy Liles said. "I swear I don't see it all over Florida like I see it here."

Because of Mrs. Robins, it got an early start here, she said. Cogongrass also gets a roothold any time the natural landscape has been disturbed, as it often is in a rapidly growing county like Hernando. And the presence of mining in the county has left vast areas of exposed earth, which commonly become covered with cogongrass.

The seeds are known to cling to road-building equipment, which is the main reason it has become so prevalent in the state forest, Hazel said.

Steve Fickett, formerly a biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission said people building baseball fields around the county unwittingly were transplanting seeds from near the epicenter of cogongrass in Hernando County.

The clay at the Chinsegut Nature Center was known to be of a very high grade, he said. Contractors building baseball fields were granted the right to use the clay, he said, usually taking some cogongrass seeds with it.

The mature grass not only has an almost supernaturally vivid color and toughness that approaches Astroturf, Hazel said, but it is just about as hospitable to wildlife.

"Deer really like it to bed down in," Hazel said. "But that's the only value it has to wildlife."

Mature blades are finely serrated and cut the mouths of animals that eat it. Because it is so aggressive, it crowds out other vegetation that foraging animals depend on. Wire grass, for example, which is one of the primary foods of the gopher tortoise, cannot compete with cogongrass.

Bailey said, while cogongrass is a severe problem, it is not yet a serious threat to most of the state's wildlife population, in part because it is most prevalent in disturbed areas like roadsides. He estimated that less than 1-percent of the Ocala National Forest is covered with cogongrass.

But it has become enough of a concern that considerable resources are being directed to study its eradication.

"It's been around a long time, but no one has known what to do about it," Hazel said. "They basically just watched it spread."

Now, she said, "people are really starting to work on it."

Bailey has been researching methods of eradicating it for about three years ago and Hazel has been at it for about a year in a field of chest-high grass that had grown up behind the forestry center north of Brooksville.

Though the grass can be destroyed by repeatedly plowing it under, this is impossible when it has invaded wooded areas.

There treatments that include high-powered herbicides are the only solution, Hazel said.

Introducing such chemicals into wild areas is something no naturalist likes to see, Fickett said. But the sooner the concentrated eradication efforts begin, the less land will have to be contaminated by herbicides.

"Something ought to be done about it, and quickly," he said.