The aggressive African lovegrass disrupting Canberra's ecosystem

A type of African grass that pushes out native species is spreading rapidly and contaminating swathes of land in and around Canberra, according to nature experts.

The plant known as African lovegrass can grow to more than a metre high and once it spreads across public spaces it dominates the area. It's also a fire risk because it burns easily.

Geoff Robertson is concerned about  the spread of the weed. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos.

Geoff Robertson is concerned about the spread of the weed. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos.

"It's highly invasive," said Geoff Robertson, the president of the Friends of Grasslands conservation group in the ACT.

"In Canberra, it's out of hand."

Steve Taylor, who is in charge of the ACT government's battle against the seemingly invincible weed, said it was spreading faster than it could be controlled.

He said the weed was disrupting the whole ecosystem by displacing native grasses - as these original grasses are pushed back, the insect population shrinks and that cuts the population of birds.

It can grow more than a metre high so it can be a traffic hazard.

African lovegrass can grow so high it impedes drivers' vision. Photo: ACT government

African lovegrass can grow so high it impedes drivers' vision. Photo: ACT government

The species came to Australia from southern Africa in the 19th century, perhaps by accident or deliberately as an import by misguided farmers who didn't understand that it had little use for either man or beast. It is of such low nutritional value that cattle that eat it may actually starve because they feel full with a feed that contains virtually no nutrition.

What experts do know is that it's spreading like wildfire.

Mr Taylor said that apart from disrupting the ecosystem, it was a fire danger because it grew in summer, which meant there was dead, dry material in winter so the fire season was extended.

His strategy is to protect nature reserves but he and his teams can't eradicate it everywhere; it's a fight against the tide. "It's out of control so we focus on containing," he said.

They mow infested open spaces in the city where the plant had grown so high that it was a fire risk but the weed on other bits of wasteland had to be left.

With nature reserves in the city, teams would spray herbicides from the edges of these areas of rare plants back to the road.

African lovegrass fire in winter. The weed extends the fire season. Photo: ACT government

African lovegrass fire in winter. The weed extends the fire season. Photo: ACT government

In the Black Mountain Nature Reserve, for example, there is a very rare native orchid from which the lovegrass has to be kept away. "In areas like that we have zero tolerance," said Mr Taylor.

He urged people not to visit precious nature reserves in the ACT or the Namadgi National Park or the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near it without cleaning boots and tyres. Mud carries seeds.

There is also a concern in more rural areas surrounding the ACT. According to Dr Arnold Dekker, president of Sutton Landcare, part of the problem is mowers spread the seeds. When verges were cut, he said, mowers should be cleaned or they would transport the African lovegrass to the next site.

The ACT government said it was stepping up what it called its "ongoing battle" against the weed. A statement said it was "blowing down or washing down mowers as they move out of affected areas and before they move into clean areas".

Fire can't be used to control the unlovely lovegrass because it might actually boost the weed by sending seeds into the air while clearing ground for them to come back down and fertilise.

African lovegrass invading Canberra. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos.

African lovegrass invading Canberra. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos.

Mr Taylor thinks the federal government should spend more money on research into a biological solution - finding a plant or animal that would attack only the weed. It's been done with other out-of-control plants.

Australia is not the only victim of invasive, imported species that have no indigenous natural control. California complains of the red gum tree - from Australia.