There’s a pretty plant blooming all over Austin, but don’t be fooled by its good looks. Underneath its veil of yellow flowers is a killer.
An invasive plant called Rapistrum rugosum (aka bastard cabbage, turnip weed or Mediterranean mustard) has taken advantage of a wild year in weather. Last year’s exceptional drought knocked back many native plants, and this year’s wet winter has allowed this invader to grow out of control, shading the ground with its large leaves and keeping the seeds of native plants from germinating. Where fields ought to be filled with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and other wildflowers, this plant from Europe and North Africa has proliferated, crowding out our Texas natives.
Scientists aren’t sure how bastard cabbage arrived, but they do know how to keep it from spreading: Don’t let it go to seed.
That’s easier said than done. If the plant is sprayed with herbicide but not removed, its seeds might have matured enough to keep spreading the scourge. (It’s resistant to many herbicides, anyway. Just ask the highway departments of most of the Western states.) And there probably are already seeds in the ground, waiting for another year.
The best approach, according to Damon Waitt, is to manually remove the plant, tap root and all. Waitt, an invasive-plant specialist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, was interviewed by KXAN on Friday. As he told KXAN, “On a scale of 1-to-10, I’m at about 9.5 right now. If we don’t do something about this, we’re going to have to say goodbye to our Texas wildflowers, including bluebonnets.
Volunteers have been working hard to remove this plant from parks this spring. On March 24, a Boy Scout troop helped a group of Texas Master Naturalists pull up bastard cabbage by the roots at Blanco State Park. See what a big difference they made in this blog from writer and master-naturalist-in-training Sheryl Smith-Rodgers.
Learn more about bastard cabbage at this fact sheet from the Plant Conservation Alliance, a consortium of 10 federal agencies and more than 270 other organizations, including arboretums, foundations, plant societies and scientific groups.
Don’t let this plant get so much as a toe-hold on your property, and if you want to make a bigger difference, gather a group of volunteers to remove it from public lands such as Mabel Davis Park. The long tap root will be easiest to remove when the ground is soft, within a few days after a rain. Be sure to dispose of plants in the trash.
There is hope, though. Bastard cabbage is one of the plants being researched by the Wildflower Center’s invasive species program, which has found evidence that it can be out-competed by over-sowing with the seeds of some native wildflowers, such as Indian blanket. So do your part to keep Austin weird and wild.