Volunteers Work with U.Va. to Stem Plant Invasion

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April 30, 2009 — University of Virginia landscapers are working with local volunteers to repel an invasion … of foreign plant species.

The Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards have worked alongside U.Va. Facilities Management personnel for several months digging out invasive species like honeysuckle and "Trees of Heaven" from a one-acre parcel of woods on University property. The site is located along the Rivanna Trail, between Barracks Road and The Park, where the University's varsity softball field is located.

Invasive species are plants or animals not native to an area, but which tend to thrive because of climate, lack of predators or both. One of the most famous invasive species is kudzu, introduced into the United States in the late 1800s from Japan as a forage and ornamental plant. Farmers were later encouraged to use it as an erosion control plant until it was declared a noxious weed in the 1950s.

"These are plants that are brought in for a purpose, such as building hedges, but then they escape," said Tim Spencer, U.Va.'s landscape supervisor for the North Grounds. "They out-compete native plants and take over. They grow faster and, in a lot of cases, wildlife doesn't like to eat them and they crowd out the native species."

The Tree Stewards have removed bittersweet vines, Ailanthus trees ("Tree of Heaven"), Japanese honeysuckle and Russian olive shrubs that had established themselves and were pushing out indigenous plants.

On a recent day, Tree Steward Phil Stokes pointed to honeysuckle vines that had overwhelmed a young tree, spiraling up its trunk and higher branches, choking it slowly. The volunteers severed the vines several feet about the ground and were trying to dig out the roots to ensure they would not return.

"The Rivanna Trail runs right through this area," he said. "It is a highly visible location and it has been an eyesore for years."

A stretch of the Rivanna Trail runs behind the U.Va. School of Law and the Darden School of Business, linking Barracks Road with Old Ivy Road. Spencer said the volunteers started at the Barracks Road end because it's a fairly public spot and this visibility makes it a good demonstration project for the Tree Stewards, according to Jacki Vawter, the group's president.

"This is a place that is seen," Vawter said. "The trail runs through it and this will give runners and hikers an idea of the way it is supposed to look."

With a nod to the U.Va. workers, she added, "We're in the education business, in a subtle way."

The amount of work the volunteers have performed is not subtle. They have cut vines and tried to extract the root systems, pulled out shrubs and cleared ground covers such as garlic mustard. In the process, they have also uncovered some native species, such as bloodroot.

Facilities Management workers have hauled away the uprooted debris. Spencer said a grinder was employed to destroy the woody plants and the remains were composted.

"Trying to keep invasives down is laborious," Spencer said. "We try to remove them as we see them."

"We're concentrating on one area, because the amount of work is overwhelming," Stokes said as he wielded a mattock to loosen vine roots. "We hope that we can inspire other people to take up some of this work."

It will take effort to maintain the parcel as the native varieties take hold, but Stokes said that this area is somewhat isolated, with a road on one side and softball fields on another, and it will be harder for alien plants to enter.

"It's very labor-intensive," Spenser said. "They're pulling out roots so the plants don't come back. And they are going into the woods about 30 to 40 feet from the trail."

On April 23, after having spent several months removing invasive species, the volunteers planted native shrubs and trees, including red twig dogwoods, silky dogwood, hazelnut and redbud trees. They plan to dig out more alien plants May 2 as part of Virginia's Invasive Species Removal Day.

The local volunteers have completed a 42-hour course, similar to the cooperative extension's master gardener program, and after completing the classroom work, members are required  to volunteer at least 40 hours of project work to attain their tree steward certification. Vawter said the Tree Stewards, which have existed for about two years, is an independent organization "supported by, but not sponsored by" the Cooperative Extension and the State Department of Forestry.

And while they understand they have embarked on a long-term project, they are already getting positive feedback for their work.

"As some of the runners have gone by they wave and say 'thanks,' and 'lookin' good,'" Vawter said.

For information on Tree Stewards, visit www.treesvirginia.org/EventInfo/become_a_tree_steward.htm.

For information on invasive species, visit: www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/.

— By Matt Kelly