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Untangling Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed can halt a house sale, but with a variety of ways to identify and treat it, it doesn't have to stop you buying your perfect home.

Untangling Japanese Knotweed

The Victorians were wild about Japanese knotweed, with its beautiful heart shaped leaves, delicate creamy-white flowers and hardy attributes which made it ideal for lining pathways and supporting banks. Brought to the UK in the mid nineteenth century by German-born botanist Phillipp von Siebold and delivered to Kew Gardens in a box of 40 Chinese and Japanese plant varieties, knotweed spread rapidly across the UK as keen gardeners obliviously shared cuttings and disposed of garden waste. 

An extremely resilient plant thanks to large energy stores in its root system, Japanese knotweed is very difficult to kill when fully grown. The source of its resilience lies in its native habitat. It was dug up from volcanic ash near Nagaski, where it thrived amid lava and poisonous gases thanks to its extensive network of underground stems, or rhizomes, that were able to suck up the limited nutrients. 

But now we’ve come to understand the vast damage it can do to buildings and the thousands it can wipe off the value of our homes if left untreated. Number one on the Environment Agency’s list of the UK’s most invasive plant species, Japanese knotweed is described as “indisputably the UK’s most aggressive, destructive and invasive plant”, costing an estimated £166 million each year to treat. Growing up to 3 metres in height, it spreads rapidly and can push up through asphalt, cracks in concrete, driveways, cavity walls and drains in its quest for light and water.

According to a recent YouGov survey commissioned by Environet, most of us (78%) have heard of Japanese knotweed, but there is still a great deal of confusion about exactly what it is, what are the risks and how it can be treated successfully.

Interestingly, Japanese knotweed is not a problem in Japan where it has natural enemies in the form of bugs and fungi, but here in the UK it is unfortunately predator free. There are trials going on to introduce Japanese psyllids, or insects, that feed on knotweed to the UK, which could help to limit its rapid spread across the country, but these are in early stages and it isn’t known yet if the bugs will survive and thrive through our harsh winters.

What we do know is that the earlier Japanese knotweed is discovered, the better, as it is easier to treat before the root system has matured. So how can we spot it? In the autumn, the plant’s growing season draws to a close. The bamboo-like canes turn brown and brittle, which can fool people into believing the plant has died or that their own efforts at treating it have been successful. However, like many plants, the rhizome system beneath the ground is healthy and lying dormant throughout the colder winter months.

In spring, red or purple asparagus-like shoots will appear, quickly turning into green bamboo-like stems which grow at a rapid rate, several inches each day, reaching up to 3 metres in height. Knotweed is fully grown by early summer and flowers in late summer, when clusters of spiky stems become covered in tiny creamy-white flowers. The leaves are luscious green in colour, flat and heart shaped in appearance.

Attempting to deal with knotweed by cutting it down repeatedly, burning it, burying it or using common weed killers simply won’t work, as the plant can lie dormant beneath the ground, only to strike again when people least expect it. Professional herbicide treatments remain a very popular control method as they’re the least expensive, typically consisting of four treatments spread over two growing seasons, with a monitoring visit in the third year to check for any regrowth. However, it isn’t suitable if the ground is going to be disturbed and isn’t particularly environmentally friendly either, as it does involve the use of strong chemicals to kill the plant.

A much more environmentally friendly method is to dig out the knotweed, physically removing it from the ground. Environet’s Resi DigOut™ method digs up the rhizome roots and sifts every viable piece from the soil before returning the clean soil to the ground, saving the considerable costs associated with disposing of vast amounts of infected soil.

For those wishing to buy or sell a property, the discovery of knotweed doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. The seller must declare on the TA6 Property Information form, which is completed as part of the conveyancing process, that the property has been affected by Japanese knotweed. In these circumstances there is no need for the buyer to walk away from their dream home, but the seller will need to put a professional treatment plan in place and secure an insurance backed guarantee for a minimum of five years, preferably 10. 
Once they have this guarantee, there should be no difficulties in obtaining mortgage finance and the property sale can proceed unhindered. 

There is also now a Japanese knotweed indemnity insurance policy available to anyone buying a property, enabling them to protect themselves from the risk of Japanese knotweed for a relatively small sum. It covers the cost of treatment and repairs, as well as any legal defence expenses incurred should the knotweed spread to a neighbouring property. And if the knotweed causes the property’s value to fall when the homeowner comes to sell, that loss is covered too, offering complete peace of mind to the homeowner.



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