Showing posts with label invasive species. Show all posts
Showing posts with label invasive species. Show all posts

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Last Chance to Pull Stiltgrass

This week and maybe next are your last chance this year to pull stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). This mega-invasive is an annual, so the logic of countering its spread is to pull it before it can produce and drop seed. If the seeds haven't loosened yet at the end of the stalk, you can still pull it. Throw it in the trash, or if there's a lot, make a big pile of it so that any seeds that sprout the next year will all be in one place and easily covered or pulled. Definitely don't put it in your compost if its seeds are forming. If stiltgrass is just starting to invade your yard, pulling as completely as possible now will greatly limit its seedbank for next spring. Another strategy for large stands is to let the stiltgrass grow, then just as it begins to flower mow it short and hope its feeble roots don't have enough energy to grow another flowering stalk. 

For those fuzzy on identification, google lots of images, and look for the silver line running down the middle of the leaf. Stiltgrass can grow in the shade or sun, climb up to four feet, or thrive in a miniature state while ducking below your mower in the lawn. It's incredible survival skills include being incredibly inedible for wildlife. Stiltgrass gives nothing back to the habitats it increasingly dominates.

More on Stiltgrass, and a Success Story

Walking in the local woods, you've probably seen this kind of scene--what looks like a grassy meadow extending through the forest. In the filtered light of the understory, its simplicity and lushness may have some visual appeal. And yet, in some ways what you are looking at is the ecological equivalent of an urban food desert. 

Stiltgrass is an introduced plant that could be called a pervasive invasive, able to thrive most anywhere and dominate whole landscapes. Its success has come in part through being inedible. As wildlife selectively eat native vegetation, the stiltgrass expands, preventing the native plants from rebounding.

Unlike another nonnative annual weed that can look similar, crabgrass, stiltgrass becomes ubiquitous because it can thrive in sun or shade. That means the stiltgrass invading your lawn and flower beds can continue spreading ad nauseum into the nearby forest, or vice versa.

We used to call it bamboo grass--something in the shape of the leaves is reminiscent. The stiltgrass name refers to its angular growth, with each segment supporting the next as it climbs up and over fallen logs and other plants. Packing grass is another common name, referring to how it was once used to pack porcelain for shipment. That's probably how it first reached the U.S., in packing crates sent to Tennessee. 

When I first encountered it, growing on the bank of Ellerbe Creek in Durham, NC, I thought it graceful. Then came Hurricane Fran, bringing floods and fallen trees. In the aftermath of that massive disturbance, stiltgrass exploded in the landscape, expanding and ultimately choking forests with its vast, dense stands. New Jersey proved no different. 

Stiltgrass tends to establish itself along roadsides. Here it is growing in a green ribbon along Herrontown Road. Trails, too, provide an avenue for extending its reach, its tiny seeds carried on boots or the hooves of deer.

Though stiltgrass has covered large areas of woodland in the eastern U.S., we have found it worthwhile and even satisfying to counter its relentless incursions. Today in the Barden at Herrontown Woods, some volunteers pulled it out of a patch of native jewelweed along the edge of the parking lot. 

Nearby, on land where we have largely eliminated a massive clone of wisteria, stiltgrass was starting to move into the void. If nothing were done, this open woodland would have become a pasture of stiltgrass. But we have acted early enough to be able to remove all of this year's stiltgrass, dramatically reducing the seeds available for next year's crop. This photo shows the last patch before we pulled it. 

Interestingly, there are native grasses that look a little like stiltgrass, the main one being Virginia cutgrass (white grass), Leersia virginica. It has longer, narrower leaves that lack the silver stripe down the middle. As is a common ecological refrain, the native grasses "play well with others," not forming stiltgrass's massive, exclusionary stands. Some smartweeds like Lady's Thumb can also bear a resemblance. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Where Have All the Spotted Lanternflies Gone?

Well, it's happened, at least in our neck of the woods.

Billed as a major calamity, the spotted lanterfly invasion has gone "poof" this year. Yes, the spotted nymphs could still be found clinging to the stems of Ailanthus sprouts at our Barden in Herrontown Woods. 
And a few adults were later seen perched on the rachis of Ailanthus leaves. We pulled the sprouts out of the ground to deprive them of this haven. Hard to say where they went after that.

Writing a post about lanternflies three years ago, I learned that numbers of the invasive insect had dropped in some areas of Pennsylvania five years after first being seen. Lanternflies first showed up in Princeton in 2018, and here we are five years later, with what appears to be a dramatic drop in numbers.
It's true that people gave themselves over to squashing the pesky bugs--leafhoppers, actually--in spirited ways. (This photo shows one of the more creative approaches.) Some think the unusual weather has had an effect. Insect numbers overall have been down, be it the pollinators on backyard flowers, the odorous house ants that used to invade our kitchen, or spotted lanternflies. But my guess is that it has been the full-time predators, feathered or with eight legs or six, that are to be most congratulated for stemming the explosion of spotted lanternflies. 
Just follow the trail of colorful wings that brightened a walk up towards Veblen House one day.

The most powerful contrast for me is between the invasions of emerald ash borer and spotted lanternfly. Since the emerald ashborer arrived, about ten years ago, I have yet to see a single adult ash borer in Princeton, and yet the devastation they have brought to the ash tree is all around us. The lanterfly, on the other hand, has been seen everywhere, and yet I can't point to a single plant that has died due to their appetites. We humans are visually oriented, but it's the invisible threats--be they an invasive insect or even more significantly an overdose of carbon dioxide--that most endanger our world.

Friday, August 11, 2023

The Invasive Grass Fueling Wildfires in Hawaii

Hawaii didn't used to get pummeled by highly destructive wildfires. What has changed? A big part of the answer lies in the interaction between climate change and invasive species. 

Begin with a couple paragraphs buried in a NY Times article:

The area burned annually by wildfires in Hawaii has quadrupled in recent decades. Declining rainfall and rising temperatures have left the islands more susceptible to blazes, climatologists say.

Invasive grasses that are highly flammable have crowded out native vegetation in some areas, and climate change has exacerbated dry and hot conditions in the state, allowing wildfires to spread more quickly.

But what invasive species? A University of Hawaii website points to one that has been particularly destructive:
Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus), a nonnative invasive grass in Hawaii, forms dense stands that outcompete native plants and has very high fine fuel loads that greatly increase fire potential, spread, and severity.

Wikipedia describes guinea grass as a tough customer, growing ten feet tall. Though it can thrive in full sun, it can also tolerate shade, allowing it to invade native woodlands and thereby increase their vulnerability to fire during droughts. Native to Africa, the grass was introduced not only to Hawaii but also to south Texas.

How did guinea grass get to Hawaii (also spelled Hawai'i)? Wired provides an answer:

When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century and established plantations for growing sugarcane and pineapple, they also brought invasive grasses. Now the economics have changed, and those fields lie fallow. But the grasses have spread like a plague. “Those fire-prone invasive species fill in any gaps anywhere else—roadsides, in between communities, in between people’s homes, all over the place,” says Pickett. “At this point, 26 percent of our state is covered in these fire-prone grasses.”

This stuff is highly sensitive to short-term fluctuations in rainfall. The grass will grow like crazy when the rains come, then quickly desiccate when the landscape dries. “When we get these events like we’re seeing these past few days—when the relative humidity really drops low—all those fine fuels become very explosive,” says fire ecologist Clay Trauernicht of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
An article in ABC News explains how the more intense and frequent fires affect the soil and human health: 
Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit working with communities to prevent and mitigate fires, lamented the changes wrought by fire.

Invasive and fire-prone grass species have moved in over time and during a fire they can burn into native forests, which means the forests are replaced by more grass, Pickett said. The soil burns and sloughs off, leading to massive post-fire erosion that smothers coral, impacts fisheries and reduces the quality of the ocean water, she said.

The state is windy and the dust blows for years, harming human health, she added.

“When you lose your soil, it’s really hard to restore and replant. And then the only thing that can really handle living there in many cases are more of those invasive species,” Pickett said. “It’s systemic. Air, land and water are all impacted.”
A Philosophical Footnote
It's important to note that both climate change and the spread of invasive species are largely unintentional. Our world is threatened by excess carbon dioxide and other planet-heating gasses--lowly biproducts of our economy and lifestyles. We are used to thinking of collateral damage as minor and incidental, and tend not to judge people by what they do unintentionally. In fact, the cumulative impact of unintentional acts is the central threat we face. We live our days trapped in a predicament in which humanity, largely well-meaning, is allowed to collectively and unintentionally create problems, but not allowed to collectively and intentionally solve them. 

Additional reading: Thanks to a comment (see the critical comment and my response below), I found a couple more interesting articles about guinea grass. One gives a good overview of guinea grass as both an excellent, deeply rooted forage grass for cattle, and a weed that has disrupted ecosystems and croplands around the world. The other invests the grass with cultural connotations.

Other Invasive Grasses Fueling Fires in Hawaii

My friend Fairfax sent a link to another informative article that mentions three other introduced grass species fueling fires in Hawaii: fountain grass, buffel grass, and molasses grass. It also stresses that these and other highly flammable introduced grasses are altering fire ecology in the mainland U.S. as well.

What Guinea Grass Has in Common With Japanese Stiltgrass

Some people aren't aware the extent to which grasses affect our lives, for better and for worse. Corn is a grass, as are sugar cane, bamboo, and sorghum. In Princeton and up and down the east coast, the most dominant invasive grass is Japanese stiltgrass, which like guinea grass can grow in sun or shade, and uses what's called C4 photosynthesis to fix carbon from the atmosphere. Plants that use the C4 process--corn also being an example--are more efficient than other plants that use C3. Stiltgrass has invaded most areas of Princeton, growing from a zillion seeds each spring to blanket large expanses of woods. Wildlife don't eat it, so as it takes over, the landscape becomes increasingly inedible. I've long wished that someone would come up with a highly selective herbicide that would impact only C4 plants. If stiltgrass's impact on eastern habitats hasn't been sufficient to stimulate research, maybe the fire hazard in Hawaii will get researches to take a look.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

A New Invasive Plant at Princeton High School

Here's a story about how an invasive nonnative plant can be accidentally introduced and quietly transform an area. It also shows how invasion can be regional but also very localized.

This is a big picture of a little yellow flower called birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). The clusters of flowers and especially the subsequent seedpods resemble the shape of bird's feet, and the tiny leaves echo this shape to some extent.

I hadn't knowingly seen it much, and only learned the name a couple years ago, but this year, 
it has spread aggressively along the grassy extension along Walnut Street at Princeton High School. I'd noticed a few the year before, but now it is dominant along a stretch in front of the Performing Arts wing and the Ecolab wetland. 
This year also, it is coating areas of an old pasture next to Herrontown Woods. In the pasture, it was probably planted intentionally as forage for cattle, but at the school, it surely was introduced accidentally.

Should we be concerned about either example of this nonnative rampancy? I sent an inquiry to a couple listserves of land managers, and received a tepid response. Birdsfoot trefoil is mostly a roadside weed, was the sentiment. It only gets a couple feet high, so will likely just stay in the background rather than stifle native species. 

But I have a vivid memory of a prairie walk I went on last year at the Kishwauketoe nature preserve in my home town in Wisconsin. At one point, leading us through a gloriously restored prairie, the botanist spotted a birdsfoot trefoil and immediately went over and pulled it out. Was it merely a pet peeve, or was his determination rooted in past observations of dramatic consequences if birdsfoot trefoil is allowed to spread? 

This short video shows how birdsfoot trefoil can alter the appearance, if not necessarily the composition, of a meadow:

I did a quick survey of school grounds and the nearby neighborhood by bicycle, and discovered that the infestation is limited to grass next to the extra wide sidewalks that were installed along Walnut Street a couple years ago. It probably hitchiked in on machinery or soil used in construction of the sidewalk. Another possible vector was the planting of new street trees right where the birdsfoot trefoil growth is now the most dense. Rootballs, topsoil, tools, heavy equipment--all can carry weedseeds.

This is an invasion that's in the very early stages, and could be easily nipped in the bud. For instance, I found a grand total of three plants on the middle school grounds. Five minutes of spot spraying with a selective herbicide now is all it would take to stop an infestation that will otherwise become intractable.

Another reason to take action is that it is poised to invade the new native meadow planting in the detention basin next to the tennis courts. In this photo, a few plants of birdsfoot trefoil grow just across the parking lot from the new native planting. Does the school want a native meadow, or a meadow that is thick with a nonnative species that appears capable of outcompeting many of the native grassland plants? 

Now, while the extent of the spread is limited, would be the time to take proactive action. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Poison Hemlock Popping Up in Princeton

When mathematician and Herrontown Woods volunteer Robert Budny reported that he had found lots of poison hemlock growing in his yard in Princeton, I was at first surprised. I somehow got it in my mind that he was talking about water hemlock--a rarely encountered native wildflower, of which I have come upon a grand total of one growing in Princeton's preserves. 

Robert was quite sure of his find, and said he'd experienced skin irritation while cutting the numerous plants down.

Then I saw this patch of white along Snowden, which too was surprising, since I pass there almost daily yet had never noticed before these tall plants covered in blooms. Maybe it was Robert's sharing of his backyard encounter that primed my eye to take notice.

These, too, proved to be poison hemlock, with broad disks of tiny white flowers. 

and lacy compound leaves. Other plants with white disks of flowers this time of year are the shrubs elderberry and silky dogwood, but they don't have finely dissected leaves like this poison hemlock. 

Though Princeton has many invasive species, those in the carrot family have been few. Goutweed spreads through some gardens. It gets mixed in with the intended plants and can be very hard to eradicate. My neighbor up the street was somehow able to do it, though, through sheer persistence. Wild carrot (Queen Anne's Lace) shows up occasionally along roadsides. It's a beautiful plant, but I've seen it become too much of a good thing in the midwest. Here's information on which members of the carrot family behave invasively in Wisconsin. It includes a useful description of this plant family.
"Many members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) are invasive in Wisconsin. These herbaceous biennials and perennials have alternate, compound leaves with sheaths at the base of leaves. Many small, 5-petaled flowers are arranged in compound umbels (several small umbels combine to make larger umbels). Of the species that are invasive, all have white flowers except wild parsnip, which has yellow flowers. Seeds form in pairs and stems are hollow at maturity."
There are other invasive plant species that, entrenched elsewhere in NJ, are just starting to show up in Princeton. Jetbead and Mile-a-Minute are examples. Catching these early and preventing them from spreading means fewer aggressive plants for gardeners and preserve managers to deal with in the future.

Related posts:

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Autumn Clematis and the Really Big Show

Even now, as the flowers begin to fade, 

autumn clematis makes this lamppost look like it's wearing a voluminous fur coat. 
It's been a good year for autumn clematis, whose big floristic show revved up in these parts nearly a month ago, caught in a photo where a cascade of flowers-to-be was piggybacking on a neighbor's fenceline. 

There is great appeal in the blooms, and yet this vine should come with a warning sign.

In my mind, though not in the garden, I pair the nonnative Autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) with the native virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana), which also has white flowers and a sprawling habit. An easy way to tell the two apart is the leaves, which are toothed in the native, rounded in the nonnative. The native's flowering comes earlier in the summer and lasts a week rather than a month.

Together they tell a familiar story, in which the native has become comparatively rare. Years back, I took this rarity to mean that the native was less aggressive, but in fact the native when planted in the garden has proven just as hard to control as the introduced species. While sending up vines that grow over other plants, as you'd expect of a vine, both also spread underground, popping up in all sorts of places where you had other plans. 

Why is it the nonnative that can be seen covering a whole side of an abandoned parking lot in Montgomery north of Princeton? 
or lining the road to Cape May Point State Park? 

There are books that claim that nonnative invasive species are somehow superior to the natives, and that we should embrace these "winners" rather than counter them. Hopefully that dubious premise has faded into obscurity, unlike so many other dubious premises that now strut their stuff on the national stage.

More likely, the autumn clematis's capacity to grow unhindered is due to its unpalatability to deer and other wildlife. That would explain why the native virgin's bower is rare in local nature preserves while it runs rampant in my garden in town, where deer seldom venture. 

Periodically, I head down the great eastern piedmont from Princeton to North Carolina, where I've been involved with saving some rare habitat known as piedmont prairie. This small remnant on the outskirts of Durham, NC contains a clematis that will seem odd to anyone accustomed to clematis being a vine. This one, called curly top, Clematis ochroleuca, grows a foot or two tall in full sun and special soils formed from the underlying diabase rock. Princeton has lots of diabase rock along its ridge, which also hosts rare species, though not the same ones as in NC. 

The name "curly top" might come from the way the flowers curl downward, or from the curly seedheads that are also characteristic of the more common kinds of clematis. 
Another clematis in the piedmont prairies of NC is leatherflower, Clematis viorna, a small vine whose flower also points downward. 

Witness a high quality piedmont prairie, and you'll see how rich and diverse an intact native habitat can be. Though cheated of the periodic fires that used to sustain them, prairie remnants have persisted here and there, mostly under roadside powerlines where trees were not allowed to shade them out. I've rescued plants from a few that were being lost to development, and marveled at how each shovelful would contain four or five species. Nature was demonstrating how co-evolution moves towards a rich coexistence. Presumably, each species is limited in some way, most likely by herbivory, from running roughshod over the others. 

Witness that, and a monoculture of autumn clematis will look both showy and disturbing. 

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Mile-a-Minute Vine in Princeton

Each year I conduct a solo campaign to keep the highly invasive weed Mile-a-Minute out of Princeton. It's a prickly annual vine that grows each year from berries produced the year before. Knock it out before it produces berries, and eventually there will be no berries to sprout. Otherwise, the infestation will grow and birds will spread the berries across all of Princeton, to spring up in backyards and vex homeowners with its thorns and rampant growth.

I know of two infestations--one at the Princeton Battlefield, the other down off West Drive on the gravel road to Rogers Refuge. Yesterday, passing by Princeton Battlefield, I stopped to uproot what Mile-a-Minute I could find and leave it on the lawn to dry in the sun. Like most annual plants, it has whimpy roots and can easily be pulled, wearing a good pair of gloves.

Princeton Battlefield has a remarkable history, which makes it all the more remarkable how ahistoric the landscaping is. Non-native turf is surrounded by giant kudzu-like topiaries of non-native porcelainberry vine growing over the native dogwoods that were proudly planted for the 1976 bicentennial. There's little hint of what the Clark Farm looked like on that fateful day in January of 1777. The lack of botanical context doesn't fit with the people and era the Battlefield is meant to celebrate. Plants were important to George Washington and other leaders of his time. They were farmers. It's not coincidence that the United States Botanic Garden was built to stand next to the U.S. Capitol building. What grew upon the land mattered back then. They didn't mow the lawn and think their work done.

Seeing a landscape so invaded and out of balance, I sometimes imagine a hospital with no doctors or nurses, only custodians dedicated to keeping the place clean. The patients are on their own, unless a volunteer doctor happens by to treat some localized infection. That's the situation in the vast majority of our landscapes, cared for by custodians armed with raucous mowers and leaf blowers, oblivious to the complexities of nature and its needs. 

In the meantime, I pull the Mile-a-Minute, trim back some small portion of the porcelainberry vines so the dogwoods might live another year, and wonder at the world's disconnect with nature.

The two photos show 1) porcelainberry vines overwhelming a dogwood tree, and 2) another sea of porcelainberry in which only the similarly invasive Canada thistle can manage to lift its pink flowers above the swarm.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Murder Hornets and Princeton's Cicada Killer

The scary reports about murder hornets offer an opportunity to write about invasive species and insects generally. "Murder hornet" is a nickname, but the insect's real name, Asian giant hornet, is not very reassuring. There have been some scary videos making the rounds. The NY Times article was less sensationalistic, and captured well the potential threat along with the actions being taken to counter it. Rutgers hastened to clarify that the insect isn't found in the northeastern U.S.. And it's still not clear whether the AGH (Asian giant hornet) has established a population in the northwest, and if so whether the population is still small enough to be eradicated.

Big insects are scary. One nightmare remembered from childhood was of an ant about two feet long. I had a memorable bike ride home one day with a wasp having perched on my shoulder. I decided to just let it sit there, and eventually it flew off. The more I learn, though, the less scary most insects become. Late last summer, I waded out into a lawn full of blue-winged wasps flying about, knowing they were harmless. Knowledge can lead to a gentle response to something seemingly dangerous in nature. When the fishhook-shaped thorn of a multiflora rose bush pricks the skin, the best thing to do is relax, move towards the shrub rather than away, calmly cut the stem to which the thorn is attached, or rotate so the thorn has a chance to slip back out of your clothing.

Learning more about the Asian giant hornet can bring at least a little reassurance. Along with the uncertainty of its establishment in the U.S., I heard via an invasives listserve that "AGH does not attack people unless it feels threatened", and though they do pose a threat to honey bees, they only "attack and kill other bees in the late summer when developing males and future queens need extra protein to complete their life cycle."

The largest wasp in the Princeton area is the cicada killer, which looks much scarier than it actually is. Like dragonflies, they can tackle insects in midair. Ten years ago, there was a colony of cicada killers living near the Princeton Community Pool. Cicada killers are large wasps in Princeton that dive-bomb cicadas in mid-flight, then haul them back to their underground nests to use as food for their young. They pose little danger, but the colony was exterminated by the parks department because the wasps alarmed people walking by in their bathing suits. (Photo is a dramatization featuring our local cicada killer and an unknown actor.)

While pointing out that some threatening looking insects can be benign, I've also long advocated for action on invasive species. As introduced plants like lesser celandine and porcelainberry spread their smothering growth across Princeton's open space and lawns, there is an opportunity to keep them out of some areas through proactive action. It's been very hard to get people to think strategically, however.

The Asian giant hornet is at least being taken seriously. Quick action could prevent it from getting established in the northwestern U.S., though usually an introduced species is already established by the time anyone sees it in the wild.

As with COVID-19, there are questions as to how the hornet would adapt to climate in the U.S. The L.A. Times questioned whether the AGH would adapt to California's cool summers and warm winters.

Some introduced insects become enduring pests, like Asian tiger mosquitoes that bite annoyingly during the daytime, and the Emerald ash borer that has decimated ash trees. On the other hand, we hear little about the killer bees that were touted as such a big threat in the 1980s. The best news would be that the Asian giant hornet hasn't become established after all.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Balance and Imbalance in Nature

Here are two examples of insects eating leaves at Herrontown Woods. One is sustaining balance, while the other threatens the survival of beloved native Viburnums. Why is one insect beneficial, and the other highly destructive? The story begins with the sensitive fern, a beautiful native that graces local wetlands and gardens.

Though we tend to think of ferns as delicate, the sensitive fern is a tough, resilient plant in moist ground, sometimes even showing expansionist tendencies in a garden. The "sensitive" in the name refers primarily to its susceptibility to first frost in the fall.

Typically, the aggressiveness of native plants has been countered through the co-evolution over many millenia of other organisms that can eat them. Any plant that becomes super abundant will in turn provide abundant reward for any organism that develops a capacity to eat it, thereby bringing its population back into balance with other species. That co-evolution takes time, given that plants are brilliant chemists, with many chemical and physical defenses that must be overcome by any would-be consumer.

Since deer generally don't eat sensitive fern and our summers are getting wetter, what might keep it in check?

Recently, while weeding the new botanical garden at Herrontown Woods, I found some young sensitive ferns stripped down to their leaf veins. Sensitive ferns, it turns out, are eaten by several kinds of insects, each attacking a different part of the plant.

The culprit here was a little green caterpillar, most likely a sawfly larva.

Presumably, because I haven't heard of any new, introduced insect ravaging ferns, this insect evolved long ago a capacity to digest and detoxify the sensitive fern's chemical defenses. Any predator that consumes all of its prey will not itself survive, so relationships tend to evolve between predator and prey that are mutually sustaining, and therefore promote balance in nature.

The damage inflicted by the caterpillar is therefore reassuring.

By contrast, the insect damage on this leaf, encountered on the red trail leading up to the Veblen Cottage, was not at all reassuring. It is instead evidence of a radical change coming to Princeton's nature preserves that could largely eliminate several important shrub species from our woodlands and gardens. The leaf is of arrowwood Viburnum, one of three Viburnum species that up to now have contributed flowers, berries, and fall foliage to Herrontown Woods' ecological functionality and beauty.

Their continued presence is now threatened by an introduced species, the Viburnum leaf beetle. Past writings about this invasive beetle on this blog can be found at this link. Arrowwood Viburnum tends to be the first to succumb, followed by mapleleaf Viburnum and blackhaw Viburnum. The insect has the ability to completely skeletonize a shrub. Multiple attacks can ultimately exhaust the plant's reserve energy. I saw a skeletonized Viburnum in Pittsburgh some years ago. Its complete stripping of the plant's foliage was in contrast to a native predator that would tend to do only partial damage, leaving most of the plant alone.

Below, from a Cornell University website, is one potential scenario. It suggests that there will be an initial wave of destruction as the Viburnum leaf beetle eats through all the susceptible Viburnums, after which the insect's population will crash, and become a minor pest from thereon, allowing the susceptible species to grow once again. Even if this were to prove true, the introduced pest represents one more shock to the system.
"The viburnum leaf beetle hit us hard in the Rochester area about 15 years ago. During those first few years in which the beetle population peaked most of the susceptible native species like arrowwood, that were growing in wooded areas, were killed. Some landscape plants succumbed to the defoliation then too.

"At that time I would not have recommend planting a susceptible species like the Cranberry bush viburnum. Now however the populations of the beetles are down significantly and it is safe for us to plant species again like cranberry bush and arrowwood viburnums. They’ll get a little bit of damage but nothing lethal.

"Why did the populations go down? It seems with all the very susceptible native plants that were around initially allowed the populations to reach unnaturally high levels and the beetles moved into landscapes annually. With those food sources gone the populations declined. Also, and maybe more importantly, predator insects, and nematodes that affect the larva in the soil have built up and found the Viburnum leaf beetle as a food source!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Non-Native Shrubs Shade Out Spring Wildflowers

This time of year, you can tell with one glance how many non-native shrubs are growing in a local woodland. Non-natives like privet, winged euonymus, and bush honeysuckle leaf out earlier than most native shrubs, reflective of their having evolved in a different climate from our own. Many of our woodlands are now thick with these non-native shrubs, and their early leafing out has ecological consequences. The spring ephemeral wildflowers have evolved to utilize the sunlight available during that window of time in spring when the woody plants above them are still dormant. Introduce woody plants that leaf out earlier, and the wildflowers can't store up enough energy to bloom the next year.

This problem will be exacerbated as we lose the many ash trees in our woodlands, since the nonnative shrubs will likely grow all the more densely as more sunlight reaches the understory in summertime. At Herrontown Woods, we're cutting down the non-native invasive shrubs, to allow more sunlight to reach spring wildflowers, and also to allow native shrubs a chance to thrive.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Wanted: A Few Good Herbivores

If you encounter a book or article that claims that, surprise!, invasive species aren't such a big problem after all (a few were written over the past decade), you'll probably find no mention of herbivory. They'll say that invasive plants are being falsely maligned, because actually they do wonderful things, like provide berries and nectar for wildlife. But it's to the plant's advantage to have its flowers visited and its berries consumed. What the plant doesn't "want" is to be eaten, and therein lies the problem with plants that become invasive. For whatever reason, be it an invasive's chemical defenses or ingrained dietary habits, the wildlife tend not to eat them.

Nature depends on consumption to keep things in balance. We love nature for its beauty and variety, but behind the scenes there's a whole lot of mastication going on. Take away predators and the deer population explodes. Introduce a new plant that the wildlife won't eat, and there's potential for that species to make habitat less and less edible as it displaces the natives. To fill this void in consumption, people have had to play the role of herbivores. What we do at Herrontown Woods, as we cut down dense groves of winged euonymus and other nonnative invasive shrubs, is to play the role of the missing herbivores, using our loppers for teeth.

There's some pleasure in the work--pleasing vistas created, serendipitous discoveries. But all things being equal, it would really be nice if the resident wildlife could show some flexibility in food preferences and fill the void in consumption. Invasives, after all, represent a huge, untapped food source for any animal willing and able to broaden its palette.

Given how much work it would be for humans to play the role of herbivores in the forest, any evidence of wildlife gaining an appetite for invasive plants stirs some hopefulness.

For instance, an invasive honeysuckle shrub was recently found stripped of its leaves. A closer look revealed something had been hard at work, its mandibles outshining our loppers: the caterpillar of a snowberry clearwing moth, also known as the "hummingbird moth" or "flying lobster", for its capacity to hover in front of flowers as it sips their nectar. Maybe if we had more summer wildflowers for the adult moths to feed from, their caterpillars would help control the populations of bush honeysuckle in Princeton's preserves. Nice to think, anyway.

And what's this orange plant growing on a dense expanse of invasive mugwort that grows as a monoculture along the gas pipeline right of way in Herrontown Woods? Dodder is a parasitic plant with little capacity to gather energy from the sun. Instead, it wraps itself around other plants and sucks out their juices.

Usually, its impact is small, but this must have been a particularly good year, because a sizeable patch of mugwort was sucked dry.

If only we could get the dodder (genus Cuscate) to preferentially neutralize the mugwort all along the right of way, some diversity might return. Again, a nice thought and tall order.

A new invasive trying to gain a foothold in Princeton is mile-a-minute vine, with a distinctive triangular leaf, a prickly stem, and a growth habit to match its name. Another post shows how invasive this annual vine can be , on farms just outside of town. Fortunately, after weeding out a small population back in 2007, I know of only two patches currently growing in Princeton, still small enough to control and hopefully eliminate altogether.

One's at the Princeton Battlefield. This year's growth was pulled out in early summer, and when checked in late August, the patch had only managed to produce a few leaves, all of which were being very effectively munched on by a weevil intentionally introduced to the U.S. to bring this rampant new species under control.

Ah, I concluded, to control mile-a-minute vine, simply reduce the patch in early summer, leaving enough for the weevils to sustain their population on. Their appetites appeared to be sufficient to prevent any flowering or fruiting that could lead to the patch spreading elsewhere.

Nice concept, but it wasn't working at the other site, down along the driveway into Rogers Refuge, where the vine had sprung back up, flowered and fruited, undeterred by the minor nibblings of the weevil. That patch had to again be pulled out by hand.

Another discovery was the work of the Ailanthus webworm moth, which had completely defoliated a young tree of heaven near the parking lot of Herrontown Woods. The moth, like the tree, is an introduced species.

If you have flowers like boneset growing in your backyard, you may be helping the adult moths to prosper.

Here again, though, the larvae have thus far been seen only on very young trees, with larger ones largely left untouched.

These are glimmers of hope, sprinkled across Princeton. It will take some concerted mastication by as yet unnamed herbivores to stem the tide of rapidly spreading species like porcelainberry, callery pear and stiltgrass--a giant uneaten salad that grows by the year. A little salt and pepper, perhaps?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Viburnum Leaf Beetle's Gathering Harm

This fall, before the leaves fall off, check any Viburnum shrubs you know and love, whether in your yard or in your favorite nature preserve. Do the leaves look like this, pitted with holes, or even stripped down to the veins?

Most people have heard by now about the Emerald Ash Borer's rapidly multiplying demolition of our ash trees. Lest that devastation not be enough ecological and horticultural tragedy to absorb, there is another invasion underway in Princeton, by the Viburnum leaf beetle. This one--a European insect that first showed up in Canada before spreading to the U.S., is going after our understory, one Viburnum species at a time.

This and the above photo are of Viburnum dentatum, the arrowwood Viburnum, which grows here and there in our woodlands, preferring wetter soils. The light damage could have been done by a native insect, or by the first few Viburnum leaf beetles to show up, suggesting much greater damage the next year. Listed as "highly susceptible" on Cornell's website, the arrowwood Viburnum will be the first to succumb.

The maple leafed viburnum, frequently encountered along the Princeton ridge, is less susceptible and thus isn't showing any damage this year. As the Viburnum leaf beetle increases in numbers and exhausts the most susceptible species through complete defoliation, it will presumably begin attacking those that are less susceptible.

We are not completely helpless as yet another careless introduction to the continent wreaks slow motion havoc. This site offers some ways to prevent the beetles and their larvae from consuming your favorite specimens. As with all environmental damage done, the ecological and aesthetic services these shrubs were providing for free will now start coming with a price tag for human maintenance.

The Cornell site offers another ray of hope. An extension official in Rochester, NY asserts that even highly susceptible species may in the long term become viable again, as predatory insects and soil nematodes build up to prey on the Viburnum leaf beetles. Then, perhaps, the introduced species would come into some sort of ecological balance, doing some damage but not enough to kill the Viburnums.

It's a perfectly logical and reassuring scenario, and yet observation often brings into question the speed and effectiveness of nature's capacity to restore balance and sustain diversity. More often, invasive species remain dominant and destructive, be they Phragmitis, or Japanese stiltgrass, or porcelainberry. I called up the Frick Park Environmental Center in Pittsburgh, where I had first witnessed the devastating impact of Viburnum leaf beetle a decade ago. Asked whether they had seen any signs of balance being restored, they answered, "Not yet."

Related links:

The Pennsylvania extension service also has some useful information.

Past NatureNotes posts about the Viburnum leaf beetle, dating back to 2013, can be found here.

This post explores the likely aftermath of the Emerald Ash Borer invasion currently underway.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hands-On Learning About Invasiveness in Plants

Environmental science teacher Jim Smirk brought his kids outdoors this spring to do some hands-on learning at the Princeton High School's very own ecolab wetland. Most people would call it a detention basin, but we planted it long ago with native wetland species that thrive on the beneficent, dependable offerings of the high school's sump pump. Yes, a lowly sump pump provides the consistent water flow that drives this lush community of plants. Without it, most of the plant species, along with the frogs and crayfish, would die out the next time a long drought came along.

Jim enlisted me to provide some history on the planting to three of his classes, and also to explain why this manmade detention basin does such a good job of hosting wetland plants and animals. Like any garden, even a fairly wild one, it still needs intervention to maintain balance, since some of the native species tend to take over. Cattails, lizard's tail, and the native sunflowers spread aggressively underground, while the willows pop up in new places and quickly grow, hogging the sunlight.

Some of the more adventurous students donned waders and began digging up short- and broadleafed cattails so that some of the less aggressive sedges and wildflowers wouldn't be overwhelmed.

Others cut back willow, and removed a non-native plant called starwort that gained a foothold a couple years ago.

The students showed a lot of spirit, and were surprised that working in the mud could actually be fun.

Thanks to Mr. Smirk and his environmental science students for helping keep this wetland thriving right next to Princeton High School.