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Montana State University Communications Services

Licking houndstongue

By MSU News Service


                  BOZEMAN -- Lee Eblen's father and mother honeymooned in a little cabin in a draw on their homestead north of Springhill. Lee grew up on that rolling Gallatin County land he still works. He says he and his wife will never give it up.

            "I love this land," says Eblen, who changed from growing wheat to raising cattle because he noticed that plowing made the topsoil "head toward Bozeman."

            But Eblen said he considered selling the land just a few years ago because a noxious weed called houndstongue was bothering him so much.

            "I couldn't get rid of it, and I couldn't stand it," recalls Eblen. "I never noticed it until I got more into cattle. It seems like within a year I noticed (the weeds) so bad. I'm conscientious trying to take care of the land. I had a hard time getting a spray to work. We went through with shovels cutting them out, but the animals spread them. They seemed to start near the beaver pond. I think the cattle and deer and gophers spread them."

            Which is why he says he was lucky to hear about a research project at Montana State University that is studying the use of a native plant disease to control houndstongue.

            Nina Zidack, an MSU plant pathologist, has been testing a common type of Pseudomonas bacteria to see whether it can control houndstongue. Tests suggest that this strain of Pseudomonas is one of the rare biological control agents that may work better in the field than in the laboratory.

            "It's success is aided by plant competition in the field," says Zidack.

            The Pseudomonas is sprayed about June. It attacks new plant growth, interfering with its production of chlorophyll and making it turn white. There may be some regrowth a few weeks after spraying, but generally the plant has been sickened enough that it does not sprout the following spring.

            "We're getting up to 80 percent control of the weed in the field," she adds.

            Zidack says that some people might see a young houndstongue plant and think it was pretty. Those people haven't seen how houndstongue toxins kill livestock.

            Houndstongue is primarily a problem in the northwestern United States. It is common along streams and creeks, where few herbicides are safe to apply. When it matures in its two-year cycle, it sends its seeds far and wide in the form of burrs that stick to everything that walks, from beaver to pant-legs.

            Zidack began working with the Pseudomonas pathogen in 1996. Since then, she has worked both to increase its strength and to determine how best to apply it.

            "It's native to this area, though the strain we have selected kills houndstongue four times better than the original type," says Zidack. She says the bacteria works best when applied with a surfactant--an additive that helps the bacteria enter the leaves of the weed.

            Zidack has field trials in Gallatin, Park, Stillwater and Treasure counties. Like all biological control agents, this Because the Pseudomonas bacteria is spot-sprayed on houndstongue, non-targeted plants are not affected. At least one company is talking with MSU about its ability to make more useful plant pathogens to market as biocontrol agents to ranchers. Other MSU researchers working in the area include Dave Sands and Alice Pilgeram.


Sidebar: Students and agencies help with the houndstongue project

            Several students have worked with Montana State University plant pathologist Nina Zidack on developing Pseudomonas as a biological control of the noxious weed houndstongue.

            Most recently, Christie Fleschenau of Cascade and Sarita Cantu of Winifred worked with her. Fleschenaur, an undergraduate in agricultural education and biotechnology, helped screen bacteria to determine their toxic properties. Cantu, an undergraduate horticulture major, was responsible for growing the houndstongue being tested in MSU's Plant Growth Center.

            This project is funded by the Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Photo one: Houndstongue

Photo two: Lee Eblen and Nina Aidack taking stock of a field in which houndstongue has been sprayed with a native Pseudomonas bacterium control agent.

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Send questions or comments to Carol Flaherty, MSU Communications Services, Bozeman, MT 59717 or email Flaherty at

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