By Jodi Leamon
In mid-November at the parks, most of the vegetation is leafless. A few of the oaks are holding onto their brown foliage, but most of the landscape consists of bare limbs reaching up into the crisp air. This affords a unique view through the forest. At first, one becomes aware of cheery clouds of green hovering about eye-level for as far as is visible. It is tempting to think of this last bit of live growth at this time of year as a good thing. A closer look, however, reveals a more sinister side to the phenomenon.
Those last green leaves belong to the Honeysuckle bush. It is a plant native to Russia, which was imported here for ornamental landscaping. Now there are areas of the park in which the understory consists of very little besides Honeysuckle.
There are several species of this shrub, but one of the most prevalent in our area is Lonicera tataria. The flowers are non-fragrant and produce bright red berries late into the fall. Wild animals seem not to favor the berries as a food source because the berries remain on the plant for long periods of time. When almost nothing else is available, though, birds and deer will eat them. It is believed that this is how the plant escaped to forested areas.
Observers have noted that the Honeysuckle population in the park is increasing at an alarming rate. Any species introduced into a new area brings with it a host of problems. First of all, there are no natural predators or competitors for non-natives. Normally, an ecosystem co-evolves to keep itself in balance. Take any one element out of that system and put it into another, and balance is thrown off. The fact that an introduced species can survive in a new area indicates that the growing conditions are right for it; couple that with the lack of competition or predation, and uncontrolled growth results.
Local flora and fauna suffer due to alien plant species as well. Animals do not recognize the intruder as a normal source for food or shelter. In the case of Honeysuckle, certain animals are able to eat the berries, but it is a low quality food. The real trouble comes with crowding. Native plants are shaded out by the tall leafy shrub, and the sheer number of individuals takes up literally acres of space that could and should be used by our precious natives.
Non-natives, invasives, aliens, weeds, exotics - however they are referred to, these plants pose a huge threat to our wild spaces. Because we are such a mobile society, we transport species to new places faster than we can realize we have a problem. Once the species is present in an area, seeds are spread on shoes and clothing of unwitting hikers and make their way into the winderness on the treads of off-road vehicles.
Exotic plants are the number two cause of loss of biodiversity worldwide after loss of habitat. In 1999, President Clinton supported an initiative to begin widespread eradication efforts on non-native plants in parks and other protected lands in order to address this problem.
Fox Island has begun to take its own initiative on the issue. We are removing Honeysuckle by cutting and treating with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting from the stumps. This is more an effort to control the spread than to completely eradicate the species, and will take a considerable amount of work due to the proliferation of the plant throughout the park.
Some people may think that any plant growing in a forest, especially a nature preserve, has a right to be there. In order to protect that forest, though, we must take measures to prevent the limitless growth of exotic plants. It is hard for any nature lover to go out and kill a living thing, but when faced with the facts, many gentle-hearted naturalists become fierce "weed warriors".
Looking through the trees at that sea of light green Honeysuckle leaves in the fall is a little less pleasant when considering the darker side of the story. Hopefully, the more aware people become about non-natives, the less ground they will gain in our forests, wild lands, and protected places.