June 20 2019 11:11 AM

A county in Washington has made it easy to snap and send “mug” shots of suspicious-looking weeds.

Giant hogweed, a dangerous invasive weed

That plant with its small, white flower clusters and bright green leaves looks appealing — but it’s pretty poison: poison hemlock, to be precise, a nonnative invader that can grow up to 10 feet tall, crowd out other plants and as the name suggests, sicken people and animals. According to a Seattle Times story, it’s just one of the dangerous plants that can now be identified with the click of app thanks to Kings County, Washington’s Noxious Weed Control Program.

A new mobile app called King County Connect lets Seattle area landscapers and other residents identify evil weeds and make it easier to report them to authorities. A user simply snaps a picture of a suspect plant, matches it against a photo library of common noxious weeds and clicks Submit. The app automatically tags it with the date and GPS coordinates of its location. Afterwards, a user will get updates on what county employees did in response to receiving the "selfie," or in this case, "weedie."

Sasha Shaw works with the Noxious Weed Control Program. She says the new app is a vast improvement over the previous reporting system, where residents had to call or submit written accounts that often came with vague descriptions such as “it’s on the side of the road,” or “it’s in the park.” At a news conference, Shaw and other county specialists sat behind a table full of noxious weeds to demonstrate how to use the app.

The app’s database contains information on dozens of harmful nonnative plants that often grow rapidly and can hurt the ecosystem by overwhelming the natives. Officials in King County and other places depend on field reports from landscape professionals and the public to nip these infestations in the bud.

“In the past, someone called, said ‘there’s a plant, it’s green, it has flowers,’” Shaw, a noxious weed expert, was reported as saying. “This app will help us find them more successfully.”

Having a noxious weed’s precise location automatically uploaded to the county program’s map allows specialists to identify large spreads and areas where they’d be particularly harmful such as near a school or park. They’ll be able to prioritize the most toxic weeds, such as tansy ragwort, a plant that poisons horses, for removal.

The app came out of a hack-a-thon last year participated in by King County IT employees and representatives from Microsoft and Slalom, a Seattle consulting company. The employees, noting that that the county’s noxious-weed website was heavily visited, wanted to create a better tool for users, says Slalom’s Gretchen Peri in the story.

Many cities have smartphone apps for residents. Another Seattle one is “Find It, Fix It” where residents can report abandoned cars or graffiti. King County’s noxious-weed app is unique in that it lets users directly connect with experts, Peri told reporters.

In the article, King County Executive Dow Constantine called the app a way for residents to be armed and ready as “soldiers in the battle against noxious weeds.” Over the last two decades, county officials have detected nearly 18,000 infestations of about 50 species, covering a total of 1,460 acres. About half of them have been eradicated but seed reproduction makes clearing and total elimination difficult. The poison hemlock plant, for example, produces up to 40,000 seeds. “Weeds have their ways of getting around,” Shaw was quoted as commenting.

Landscapers and residents in the Seattle area can also report noxious weeds to the program’s website by email at noxious.weeds@kingcounty.gov or by calling 206-477-9333.