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Houndstongue gaining a foothold
Natalie Shapiro, a University of Montana restoration technician, holds a houndstongue plant pulled from the base of Mount Sentinel on Tuesday. The invasive plant has been spreading on the mountain and UM staff are trying to eradicate it before it gets out of control.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Mount Sentinel needs our help.

Houndstongue, a familiar invasive species in western Montana, is creeping its way up the mountain, and if it's not chased away, it could become a significant problem.

"We need to get on top of it now," said Marilyn Marler, natural areas specialist at the University of Montana. "It is spreading up from the backyards of homes along the bottom of the hill."

Anyone who uses the mountain is asked to keep an eye out for the plant and to either pull it or report where it is growing.

The Latin name for this unwelcome visitor is genus Cynoglossum, and it is a relative to a favorite garden plant with delicate blue flowers known as forget-me-not. Like its garden cousin, houndstongue has attractive magenta flowers, but the fuzzy-leafed plant also comes with those tenacious Velcro-like pods, informally called "hitchhikers," or "beggar's lice," which stick to animals and clothing.

The plant is new to Mount Sentinel, and it is critical to eradicate it while its foothold is tenuous.

"I will not wait for it to become widespread like spurge or toadflax, and then start a control program," Marler said.

Natalie Shapiro is one of the UM restoration technicians who has been tracking down the plant and working with homeowners at the mountain's base to identify and destroy it.

The collaboration is both important and eye-opening.

"I was hiking along the mountain and ended up in a woman's yard where there was a lot of houndstongue," Shapiro said. "She gave me permission to pull the plant and while I was there, she said she started seeing the plant in her yard over a year ago, and there was just a few then. When I found it, it had nearly taken over."

Like other invasive weeds that are trying to claim Mount Sentinel, houndstongue is a prolific multiplier.

It is a biennial that spends its first year as a rosette of leaves on the ground, and then it bolts and blooms in the second year, Marler explained.

The plant takes its name from its oval leaves, which resemble a hound's tongue.

Its flowers are small and many, and bloom in lovely red-purple colors - but after blooming, the flowers turn into sticky hitchhikers.

The plant is starting to bloom now, Marler said, and it's a good time to find it easily.

"We are working with the neighbors at the bottom of the mountain, and UM staff are pulling out the plants several times a year," she said. "Now we need to include the public."

To help, Marler offers this advice:

n Be familiar with houndstongue and change your behavior so you aren't contributing to its spread. When you find the Velcro-like seeds stuck to your clothes or your dog, do not pull them off and drop them on the ground, especially if you are in a natural area. Wait until you get home, and put them in a trash bag.

n If you hike on Sentinel - or Mount Jumbo - pull the plants and report them. On Sentinel, the biggest hot spots are at the Evans Avenue trailhead, the Woodworth Avenue trailhead, and low on the mountain between the two points.

n If you find houndstongue, send an e-mail to marilyn.marler@umontana.edu.

"It is especially important to report any sightings of the plant if they are in a different part of Mount Sentinel," Marler said.

Tackling the region's invasive weed issue can be daunting, Marler said, but there is a silver lining.

Weed pulling does work.

Houndstongue has been controlled on Mount Jumbo over the past nine years by sustained hand-pulling efforts, and spotted knapweed on the M trail is practically nonexistent due to vigorous community groups, most notably Washington Middle School eighth-graders and UM's Environmental Studies classes, she said.

The Montana Native Plant Society has kept the new invader Dyer's woad at bay by holding twice-annual weed pulls on the hill.

The next weed pull is 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 17. Meet at the M trail.

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