Patterson's Curse

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Pretty...but TOXIC to horses! Pretty...but TOXIC to horses!

All Aussie horse-owners need to be familiar with Patterson’s Curse, also known as Salvation Jane in South Australia.

It thrives in drought conditions and was a huge problem after the 2003 Canberra bushfires, where officially over 40 horses were put down after eating the weed although unofficially the numbers were probably much higher.

It’s called Pattersons Curse after a Mrs Patterson planted an imported plant, native to the Mediterranean, in her Albury garden in the 1800’s. Being a noxious weed, it quickly spread through her whole property, then to an adjoining reserve...then to the surrounding state. It took a while before anyone realised how much of a problem it was destined to was even listed for sale in nursery catalogues in 1841!

It’s now established in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Each plant is capable of producing thousands seeds in late spring and these can lie dormant for up to 15 years; there can be 100,000 of seeds in a square metre of soil. These seeds germinate late spring and during summer, when it rains.

The ‘curse’ description comes from the fact that the weed eliminates everything growing around it, resulting in huge areas of purple flowers.

The plant contains something called pyrrolizidine alkaloids which when eaten by livestock (horses and pigs are especially prone) accumulate in the liver, leading to death. Signs a horse may have liver damage includes weight loss, photosensitivity with skin on white areas such as blazes and socks looking sunburnt and the hair on these areas falling out and general dullness.

NEVER put your horse in a paddock that has Patterson’s Curse in it, nor feed hay containing the weed. Some say horses won’t eat it if there’s other pasture, but it’s not worth the risk. You might think it’s okay for your horse to eat it because he doesn’t show any immediate signs of poisoning but the problem with the toxins in the plant is that they accumulate in the horse’s liver so a few years later you might have one sick horse on your hands.

Many have purchased a horse that has later fallen sick and vet tests discovered the problem was liver damage from eating Patterson’s Curse in his past.

So if you notice any purple flowering weeds in your horse’s paddock, find other pasture for the time being and if there’s not too many plants, pull them out roots and all by hand. Ditto if you notice any isolated Patterson’s Curse plants in your area, as one plant will quickly become hundreds. Biological control using weevils and beetles is is being trialled to help wipe out the weed. Another method is to slash the plant when it’s 10% flowering, and also spraying although this is costly and not always effective.


by Vicki A Sach

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