Andrew Mathews with Cleavers, an agricultural and environmental pest.

Andrew Mathews is a man on a mission. He wants to warn people about a plant he calls “the coronavirus of weeds” and what he describes as its potential to devastate our environment.

Cleavers, Galium Aparine, is an introduced weed that first appeared in WA in 1996. It is thought to have come from New Zealand from contaminated canola seed, but its native habitat is in Russia and Europe.

While it’s present in other parts of the state and throughout Australia, there’s a lot of it around Bridgetown.

Mr Mathews, a former weed control officer who’s been involved in weed control nationally, thinks the government is not doing enough to control the declared agricultural pest and that there’s no policy pressure to eradicate it.

He claims the WA Government has “washed its hands” of the problem, lowered its threat rating and provided no funding to deal with it. 

However, the Australian Government does not list it as one of its Weeds of National Significance and WA is the only state that declares it a weed.

He says that initial outbreaks of the weed were misdiagnosed as a different species, False Cleavers (Galium spurium), until DNA testing correctly identified it.

The threat from Cleavers comes is multi-faceted, he said.

“Its seeds are super-sticky with little velcro hairs -they’re designed to stick to animals…all those seeds stick to them, then off they go.

“It likes cool damp places which is where most Australian wildlife likes in summer, so it’s guaranteed to spread to every possible habitat that it can survive in.

“It floats, it can go down river,” he said.

From nothing it can spread to cover three square metres of ground in a matter of weeks “like a massive spiderweb”.

Most alarmingly, Mr Mathews claims it’s a fire hazard with the ability to “coat the landscape in tinder” and increasing its flammability. After a fire has swept through it then has the ability to recolonise the burnt-out area in a matter of weeks.

Cleavers is an agricultural pest and a particular problem for canola, but Mr Mathews says the biggest threat it poses is to the environment.

In its early stages it can be controlled with glyphosate but as it gets older it requires stronger hormone-based herbicides or physical control.

Despite its status as a declared pest at least one Queensland plant nursery, Mudbrick Herb Cottage, is selling the plant as a herb.

Cleavers is not on the list of 32 Weeds of National Significance. It’s a list of the worst of Australia’s weeds “based on their invasiveness, potential for spread and environmental, social and economic impacts,” according to the Australian Government’s website.

Each weed on the list has its own strategic plan for controlling it. Cleavers is one of 398 weeds profiled on the government website.

The Bridgetown Star contacted the Department of Agriculture for comment but they didn’t respond before deadline.