05/01/2014 03:29 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Albertans wield shovels to save tiny endangered plant from baby's breath

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. - Southern Albertans are preparing to wield shovels to prevent a plant called baby's breath from choking out an endangered flower found in only a few spots on the Prairies.

Baby's breath, often used in floral arrangements and as an ornamental shrub, is an invasive weed that is threatening a rare plant called Tiny Cryptantha in the Medicine Hat area.

"The baby's breath is actually pushing out all of the native plants," said Sean Allen, who is studying environmental reclamation at Medicine Hat College.

Allen came up with the campaign to fight the threatening plant which has such a sweet name.

"It could end up just completely choking out Cryptantha."

Tiny Cryptantha plants are found along the South Saskatchewan River in just three areas of southern Alberta and one in Saskatchewan.

The flowers, which have white petals and grow to 20 centimetres in height, are listed as endangered under the Alberta Wildlife Act and the federal Species At Risk Act.

A federal government website estimates there are fewer than 100 plants left in the two provinces.

Last year, Allen, some naturalists, city staff and volunteers from Calfrac Well Services worked together to destroy 30,000 baby's breath plants.

Digging into the ground with shovels to sever the roots turned out to be the best method of killing the weed. They also tried cutting the baby's breath above ground with clippers, but that wasn't effective.

Using herbicides was considered to be too dangeous as that could threaten the very flower they are trying to protect.

Starting May 12, the group will grab shovels to resume digging out the weeds to help keep them from spreading.

John Slater of the Grasslands Naturalists said it could take years to win the battle, but the group is determined to succeed.

"We are very optimistic," Slater said. "I'm 80 or 90 per cent positive in achieving what we want to do in saving that plant (Tiny Cryptantha) in the area."

Still, it won't be easy.

The name baby's breath sounds delicate, but the plant is tough. It has a deep taproot and a proven ability to adapt to drought and marginal growing conditions.

And Prairie winds blow tumbleweeds through the city, spreading baby's breath seeds.

The city of Medicine Hat is urging residents to help by removing any baby's breath they find on their properties and in the community.

Allen, who is due to graduate next month, said the campaign is part of his course work this year.

He said one of the lessons he has learned is the importance of working together to develop an idea and put it into practice.

"If people can go out there and do their part and take care of any baby's breath they see, that would be much appreciated."

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Calfrac Oil Well Services.