University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager, speaking at the Illinois Corn & Soybean Classic, warns of the threat posed by Palmer amaranth.
University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager, speaking at the Illinois Corn & Soybean Classic, warns of the threat posed by Palmer amaranth.
MT. VERNON, Ill. — University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager would like to rename Palmer amaranth. If he had his way, we would saddle the troublesome plant with a more appropriate moniker.

“The name Palmer amaranth is not very descriptive,” he said. “I’m going to propose that we rename this species. The best name I’ve been able to come up with is ‘Satan.’”

Hager, speaking at the Illinois Corn & Soybean Classic, warned of the danger the weed poses. The waterhemp look-alike is poised to generate some serious headaches as it moves into fields across the state. Controlling it will be a challenge.

“We need to figure that out, because this is the one that scares me to death,” Hager said. “It’s really not a question of if we’re going to be facing more and more of a population of Palmer. It’s when and where it’s going to show up. It’s pretty much inevitable it’s going to happen.”

Tales of hoeing crews walking several abreast through cotton fields in Arkansas are becoming legendary. The rudimentary weed-removal system can set producers back as much as $100 per acre in addition to herbicide costs.

“They’re not pulling out five different species of weeds in these cotton fields — it’s one,” Hager said. “In other scenarios, they’ve literally had to abandon the crop because they can’t get this thing under control.”

Palmer amaranth is native to desert regions of the U.S., but has had no trouble moving to and thriving in more variable climates, including in the Midwest, where it has spent years becoming established.

Prolific seed production and movement have resulted in a big threat to corn and soybean farmers here. Unlike waterhemp, Palmer amaranth seeds are produced throughout a growing season. The plants can produce as many as 1 million seeds each.

“This is where we’re going to get hurt,” Hager said. “After a full season of growth with cotton, Palmer plants are still able to produce a half-million seeds per plant. Waterhemp cannot do that.

“That’s 1.2 billion seeds produced per acre. That’s a lot. I don’t care how you say it. These seeds will move. Why is Palmer easy to spread? A single plant can make 1 million seeds by the end of season.”

Even considering that only 10 percent of Palmer seeds produced are viable, only 25 percent of those germinate and 99 percent of the plants that germinate are controlled, that still leaves 250 seeds.

“If you assume a one-on-one relationship of male to female, you’ve got 125 Palmers that are going to survive,” Hager said. “Run a scenario like that and it becomes very, very evident how these things can happen.”

He pointed to an Arkansas study in which 20,000 Palmer amaranth seeds were introduced in an area of a field of only about 12 square feet. Over the next three years the field became almost totally overrun with Palmer.

“We’re probably getting close to seeing fields like this in 2013,” Hager said. “We know several fields where this thing is. I’m not worried about those. What I’m worried about is where we don’t know it is.”

Seeds are transported in various ways. It’s unlikely any farm can be protected from introduction of them, according to Hager.

“How do these seeds move? We can make a list. We’ll be here the next five hours making that list, because there are so many different ways these things can move,” he said. “The population we found in Cass County we think were a contaminant of a mix of the (Conservation Reserve Program) field. That same seed was used on about eight other farms.

“Sometimes it’s in cottonseed meal. If we feed the meal and run it through the cows, we all know what happens after cattle eat. Apparently these seeds remain viable through the digestive tract.”

He added that Palmer amaranth has been found on farms in northeast Indiana, near a large dairy operation. Though the source of the seeds has not been definitely determined, it has been suggested that it is the feed provided to the dairy.