Science Horizons intern: Philippe Pelletier

In his work for a Québec conservation group, Philippe Pelletier is fighting the spread of several invasive exotic plants in the La Haute-Yamaska region 80 km east of Montreal. Some of them are large, aggressive and resilient. The sap of the notorious Giant Hogweed, for example, can seriously burn skin. The roots of Japanese Knotweed can push through concrete.  The European Common Reed grows with such vigour that it smothers native plants in its path.

Philippe Pelletier with tarps that will inhibit the growth of unwanted plants.

Philippe was first hired as an intern program co-ordinator by the Fondation Séthy, based in Granby, the main town in the region. His income was subsidized through the Colleges & Institutes Canada’s (CiCan) Clean Tech Internship Program which is funded by Environment Canada’s Science Horizons program. Now he is a full-time project manager at the small but active non-profit organization.

The foundation could not have afforded to hire Philippe without the CiCan funding, says Séthy’s Isabelle Tétrault, who supervised his work. She says he is well organized, willing to take on responsibilities and absorbs information rapidly. “He is really brilliant and logical. He quickly sees the links between what he learns and what is going on,” she says.

Born in Châteauguay, Québec, and raised in the Eastern Townships, Philippe spent much of his childhood playing outdoors and building tree forts in the woods near Mont Orford. His mother, a biology graduate, taught him the names of birds and forest plants. He was also a keen reader of Les Débrouillards, a children’s general science magazine, and watched Découverte, Radio-Canada’s popular television science series. He always loved nature. “But if I had grown up in a different setting, I might have had a different interest,” he says. Philippe graduated from the University of Sherbrooke’s environmental studies program, which included biology, chemistry and ecology as well as environmental law, politics and economics. Throughout his internship with Séthy, he was trained by invasive species expert Dr. Hélène Godmaire, director of the Conseil Québécois des espèces exotiques envahissantes (CQEEE) which is a partner of Fondation Séthy. The knowledge he gained from her was one of the reasons he was hired full-time.

Philippe is a good ambassador to the local municipalities.

- Isabelle Tétrault, Project Co-ordinator, Fondation Séthy.

Séthy’s invasive species program is researching ways to eradicate or control the spread of especially aggressive exotic plants without using pesticides. Methods include uprooting and destroying the unwanted plants, removing seeds, repeated cutting, inhibiting new growth with tarps, and planting fast-growing native plants such as willow and sumac.

During his internship, Philippe organized demonstration sites to show local farmers methods for controlling invasive species, such as the large European reeds that sometimes took root in irrigation ditches. Another problem species is buckthorn, a dense treelike bush that can grow six metres high. The seeds it produces throughout the summer can be spread widely by birds and animals. Philippe also inventoried sites where invasive plants could be found. For example, Japanese Knotweed, a resilient shrub that can grow a few metres in height and many metres wide, can be found in roughly 80 patches in and around Granby. “I have to convince people to remove the plant and it’s my job to give them the tools to do it,” he says. Getting rid of knotweed, often mistaken for bamboo, is difficult because the plant regenerates through creeping underground stems. If a root or stem is cut, even a small piece can rapidly grow into a new plant. “It’s very easy to make the situation worse,” he says.

In conjunction with CQEEE, he has also organized an exotic species council that includes representatives from the eight municipalities in the region. Members share ideas with the goal of developing a plan to prevent the spread of invasive species in future. “Money is always concern,” says Philippe. “But it often costs less money to prevent the problem than control it.” “Philippe is a good ambassador to the local municipalities,” says Séthy’s Tétrault. It is probable that some of them will adopt new regulations concerning the removal and disposal of invasive plants.

Because they are spectacularly successful, invasive species pose a big problem for biodiversity. Some native flora and fauna might even disappear if their natural habitats are changed by alien invasive plants.  “We want to control these plants so they don’t stress the ecosystems too quickly,” Philippe says. “Some of our native species might be able to compete with these invasive species long-term so we are buying them more time.”

Many invasive species in Canada were originally brought from Europe to North America as ornamental plants. They are found in public and private gardens in many parts of Canada and the U.S.

One that’s particularly troubling is the towering Giant Hogweed brought from the Caucasus to botanical gardens in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. From there it was imported into North America despite its unappealing characteristics. Exposure to the “poison plant” can cause painful blisters and scars lasting up to six years. It also triggers “photo-dermatitis, a long-term sensitivity to sunlight. Resembling an oversized Queen Anne’s Lace and typically three to four metres high, it is a prolific seed producer generating up to 120,000 seeds per plant -- each of which can be carried with considerable efficiency by wind or water.

All parts of the noxious perennial, which has deep tap roots, contain “furanocoumarins”, a toxic chemical compound sometimes developed by plants as a defense against predators.  Giant Hogweed thrives in floodplains, river edges, meadows and open forests. To remove the plant safely, experts don “hazmat” suits and masks.

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