Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the marsh of Death

Waded the three

Forward the Loosestrife Brigade

Charge for the purple he said

Into the waters of Death

Waded the grim-faced three*


Our squad slipped into the swamp. Cattails, alders and other vegetation screened us from our objective. We slogged through the tangled morass and shin-to-waist deep water. We placed boards ahead of us to make it easier to walk without sinking too deeply in the boggy ground. It was like a short slow conveyor belt across a giant waterbed. Lay down a board. Shuffle a few steps across. Drop a second board, reach into the muck and retrieve the first board and repeat. And repeat.

For three Augusts we have gathered at this swamp to make our assault. This year we had increased our forces by a full third so now we were a trio. Our targets were the formidable and invasive plants labeled purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Like my own ancestors, the first purple loosestrife seeds came across the Atlantic Ocean to North America in the 1800s. No one knows if the seeds were brought intentionally as an ornamental plant or accidentally such as in the wool of sheep or in the ballast of a ship. Once the seeds landed on the east coast they began to creep from wetland to wetland across the continent.

Ferociously fecund, a single spike of loosestrife flowers can produce up to three million tiny seeds. Their viability is equally tenacious, with nearly 100% germination. To advance across the landscape, the small seeds can disperse in the wind or cling to the legs of water birds or hulls of boats. Most experts believe the spread of purple loosestrife and nearly all the harm done to natural habitats by invasive species has come at the hand of arguably most invasive species of all: humans.

In our desire to control landscapes, humans have cut, burned, hoed, plowed, and planted vast acreages or small garden plots with plants of our choosing. The tall spike of pink-purple loosestrife has been cultivated in gardens for years. Most infestations into the wild are the result of garden escaped loosestrife. Domesticated cultivars can successfully cross with the wild variety of loosestrife.

Without any natural predators or diseases, this foreign exotic can overtake a wetland and snuff out existing, native non-woody vegetation. Dominant stands of purple loosestrife can radically decrease the biodiversity of wetlands and affect everything from wildlife usage to nutrient cycling. Ecologists fear that many impacts of loosestrife infestations are still unknown.

Spying the six-to-eight foot spires of purple, we forged forward. Hand-to-stem combat got ugly as we struggled to pull the plant from its tight grip in the marsh. Loosestrife is exceedingly stubborn to pull out, and to assure yourself of complete victory you must extract the fibrous root system. Most of the time we could not.

To prevent this year’s seed crop from sending out tens of millions of seeds, we mostly used hand shears to cut through the tough woody stems. We had to be satisfied with this partial victory. We rolled up dismembered plants and tucked them into garbage bags that we dragged behind us. In short order the tough stems poked through the bags and soon we were pulling bags weighted with plants and water.

We didn’t use chemicals to kill the loosestrife because we were in a wetland and we didn’t want to endanger innocent vegetation and other life.

In the 1990s two species of European beetles were introduced in Minnesota as a bio-control to deal with the loosestrife. It worked. The adult and larvae of one of the species eats the leaves and flowers and another species bores into the roots, killing the plants. The beetles have greatly reduced invasions over several years as large swaths of loosestrife were killed.

In recent years there has been a comeback of loosestrife; hence our brigade’s effort to control it before it gets too thick to handle.

Gritting our teeth, with sweat running down our faces, we wrestled with tough stems. The towering plants were not silent. Scores of bees hurried from flower spike to flower spike. The aromatic nectar attracts these insects to unknowingly help complete the miracle of pollination and plant dispersal.

We were never stung as the bees simply moved to another clump of purple. As I sloshed to the next target, I felt the angst of eliminating the foodstuffs of bees and butterflies. In recent years, pollinating insects have seen frightful decreases in their populations mostly due to modern agricultural practices that include floods of herbicides and pesticides.

I justified my lording over loosestrife in the name of biodiversity. Without biodiversity, natural systems that sustain the world, including humans, collapse.

After five hours of battle we pulled six stuffed bags of mutilated remains out of the marsh. We dragged the bags to the road and heaved them into the bed of a waiting truck. They were going to be hauled away and burned, thus terminating all potential of rising to purpledom.

When can their glory fade? 

O the wild charge they made! 

All the world wonder’d. 

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble the grim-faced three!*


*I like to think that Alfred Lord Tennyson would smile in my reformatting his classic 1854 poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.



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