From her condo overlooking Loring Park, Pat Davies has watched with horror the relentless advance of the corn dog grass.
As though scripted by Stephen King, the grass, also called cattails, has gobbled up most of the north pond. It has virtually swallowed the decorative dock put into the park a few years ago by the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, and it threatens to eliminate the bigger pond.
The one upside everyone mentions is that it draws a lot of red-winged blackbirds.
But Davies is one of the park’s neighbors who have been fighting to get permission to contain the grass and save the pond for several years, and now they are getting help with a bill introduced by Sen. Scott Dibble this session.
“I’ve learned way more about cattails than I wanted to,” said Davies. “It’s one hell of a plant. We don’t have very long before Loring Park is just a field of cattails.”
The cattail is actually a hybrid of native and nonnative species, and thus it has become incredibly aggressive. The narrow-leaved cattails are believed to be from Eurasia, and look enough like the native plants that no one noticed until it was too late. It has also invaded a few other lakes around the metro area, but not as much as Loring pond.
Davies has watched the number of cattails nearly double every year while neighborhood groups tried to get around Department of Natural Resources protocols for containing it.
Currently, the DNR rules say that you need a permit to contain the plant, and that only a certain percentage can be removed each year.
“The problem is, the cattails grow faster than the percentage allowed by the DNR,” said Dibble, who has become the frontman in the battle of the corn dog grass. Rep. Frank Hornstein also has a bill in the Minnesota House. Cattail fighters are now optimistic it will pass, after similar bills died in frantic Capitol action last year.
On Monday, Dibble was fresh off a victory in the Minnesota Senate on getting an antibullying bill passed, and he joked about the tenacity needed to tackle an aquatic plant.
“The gay marriage bill was hard, the bullying bill was hard, but my re-election bill might just be getting rid of cattails on Loring Pond,” Dibble deadpanned.
Dibble said the DNR has been hamstrung by its own rules at times and seemed concerned a change would open up attempts to clear other native plants in lakes that are more natural than Loring. Current rules say the plants can’t be removed simply for aesthetic reasons.
“It’s not like Loring is some wilderness,” said Dibble. “The park has formal gardens and it’s manicured and has promenades. It’s not like the other lakes” where there stricter protections are needed, he said. The Minneapolis Park Board has been “highly supportive” of attempts to eradicate the plant, he added.
Meanwhile, as the spring thaws promise an even thicker ring of cattails in the coming weeks, opponents have given them almost demonic power. They have become place for “bad people” to hide, for example. Davies even heard a story that a dog wandered into the thicket and was heard barking, but never seen again.
Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology and board member of Friends of Loring Park, has been on the issue for years. He said if the bill passes, it will force the DNR to direct the Minneapolis Park Board to eliminate the plant. He said they would likely do so with machinery and herbicide.
“The big thing is getting native plants re-established to take over and to keep after the sprouts that remain,” said Frelich. If not, the cattails can form “floating mats” that break off into islands that could be dangerous to kids and animals in the high density park.
“We’ve been trying to get permission from the DNR for a long time,” said Frelich. “They’ve been afraid of opening up a Pandora’s box. It’s probably a process that will take several years, and then maintenance after that.”
Frelich said the issue has become such a concern in the neighborhood around the park, the location of Gay Pride events and art shows, as well as concerts and movies, that he thinks lots of volunteers would help with the effort.