How A Nickel Mining Venture Brought An Invasive Flower to Oregon

Oct 26, 2012

A new invasive species has taken root in Oregon. Yellow Tuft alyssum threatens dozens of rare native wildflowers. Amelia Templeton of Earthfix reports on the strange events that brought a European flower to a remote valley in Southern Oregon.

Yellow Tuft Alyssum, an invasive species growing in Oregon.
Credit Photo by Wikipedia user Ghislain118 / Wikimedia Commons

When Richard Roseburg began working with Yellow Tuft Alyssum fifteen years ago, it was promising plant with a special power. It absorbs nickel from the soil and concentrates the metal in its leaves.

Roseburg: “The idea that we maybe could produce an important industrial metal without tearing the tops off of mountains, that’s what really intrigued me.”

Roseburg is a soil scientist with Oregon State University.

His research team was developing a mining technique using the alyssum plants. The team collected yellow tuft alyssum seed from Southern Europe and Turkey where the plant is native.

In 1997, Roseburg helped plant about half a million seeds in a small field near Cave Junction in Oregon’s Illinois Valley.

Roseburg: “A lot of the breeding and the variety improvement work was mostly done right in this area.”

The alyssum was mowed, baled like hay, and then burned. The ash was sent to a nickel refinery for testing.

Roseburg: “It had a high enough nickel concentration that you could extract on the order of several hundred pounds of nickel, per acre, every year.”

Roseburg says there was one key step in the process. The alyssum has to be cut before it flower. The plant drops its leaves and loses its nickel when it blooms. And cutting it before it blooms limits the risk of seeds escaping into the wild.

The research was funded by a Texas company called Viridian Resources. Viridian did not respond to requests for comment.

Roseburg says in 2002 the company stopped funding the team’s research and struck out on its own. That year, Viridian planted nine more fields with alyssum.

Vautier: "They weren’t being as careful in their practices as they could have been. They weren’t mowing it and bailing it until after it was in flower."

That’s Suzanne Vautier. She lives near Cave Junction, and is part of the state’s noxious weed removal team.

Vautier was alarmed. She worried alyssum seeds could spread. She says Viridian left bales of alyssum uncovered and didn’t wash its farm equipment.

Vautier: “Right here in this area behind me, I could see that there were some plants that were obviously outside of the field. So I watched it for a few years and I started noticing that it was spreading.”

The tall yellow flowers started to sprout along roadsides and on the banks of the Illinois River.

In 2009 Oregon declared Yellow Tuft Alyssum a noxious weed. Kelly Amsberry is a botanist with the state. She says what make alyssum a threat is how quickly it can spread.

Amsberry: "We calculated the number of seeds produced per plant and it’s huge. Hundreds if not thousands of seeds per plant. Most of which germinate, and they’re easily dispersed."

There’s a second reason Amsberry is worried. The Cave Junction area is a hotspot for plant diversity. It’s home to dozens of rare and endangered native flowers. Yellow tuft alyssum can sprout almost year round, and crowd the native flowers out.

Amsberry: "And it doesn’t have any enemies here or anything else that might compete with it directly. So it has the potential to go across the [serpentine soil] and make huge stands."

The government has spent $300,000 trying eradicating alyssum.

Suzanne Vautier says alyssum is difficult to kill. She leads a group of volunteers into a field. They find alyssum mixed in with the native grasses.

Vautier: “This soil is very, very rocky, so we use miners picks a lot, to get enough of the root up so that you kill the plant.”

Vautier says it will take swift action -- and more volunteers -- to stop the spread of this invasive plant.

Vautier: "If we don’t get rid of it in the next couple of years, then it’s going to be too far gone and we won’t be able to do anything about it."

Thousands of Yellow Tuft Alyssum seeds remain in the soil. And no one knows how long the seeds might last, and keep sprouting.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio