Fighting back against natural invaders

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Volunteers remove a large burning bush at Durand Eastman Park. (Photo: John Nelson)

Almost every Tuesday, volunteers meet at Durand Eastman Park to cut and pull plants that don’t belong. The faces of the helpers have changed over the past two decades, and some of the targets of their work have as well, but the commitment to reduce the spread of invasive plants endures.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension volunteers are part of an extensive regional network of organizations working to limit the threat of invasive plants and insects. Most of the problematic plants, from knotweed to barberry, were deliberately introduced to North America because of their hardy and attractive traits in landscapes, but have become threats to the regional ecosystem because they crowd out native plants that other species need.

Winter presents an opportunity for property owners to plan for the upcoming growing season and to become involved in the larger effort, according to conservation specialists in the Rochester area. They encourage a two-part focus: reduce the spread of invasive plants, and plant native species.

“A thing that people don’t realize, is most organisms are specialists, says Matt Gallo, terrestrial invasive species coordinator for the Finger Lakes Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management. “Especially when you think about insects. If you start bringing native species back, you start bringing them back.”

Monarch butterflies, for instance, will lay eggs on invasive swallow-wort, but larvae don’t receive the  nutrients that milkweed provides, Gallo says. Swallow-worts are also believed to be a factor in a drop in native bird populations.

PRISM is a state program that partners with regional experts to oversee a host of projects. The office overseeing the Rochester area is based at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. PRISM functions as a clearinghouse for current and approaching threats and provides educational talks across a geographic area that spans 17 counties as distant as Broome County. This winter, it is leading a major project tracking the hemlock woolly adelgid.   

The approach of spotted lanternflies tops the list of every regional environmental organization because of the devastation the insect has done to grape and apple crops in other parts of the country. New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets is the lead agency in managing this pest, and PRISM is coordinating efforts such as trap monitoring by local agencies.

The spotted lanternfly is believed to have arrived in Pennsylvania accidentally in 2012 with a shipment of stone from China. The insect has no natural predators on this continent and has devoured crops worth an estimated $50 million annually in Pennsylvania. Cornell Cooperative Extension urges residents who see the bug to kill it and photograph it, sending pictures and location information to the Spotted Lanternfly Public Report.

While a number of now-problematic plants and insects came from China or Japan, conservationists are moving away from potentially xenophobic language focused on location of origin because that is largely irrelevant, according to the Nature Conservancy. What does matter is that decision-makers understand the impact of what they plant or inadvertently take with them when traveling.

“No one is trying to introduce these on purpose,” Gallo notes. “It’s not like climate change, with oil companies undermining actively. No one is trying to do invasive species. There are no bad guys. People are making decisions that don’t work out.”

Monroe County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, a subdivision of county government that is largely funded by the state, offers technical services across a range of needs from storm water management to conservation education. District officials are seeing increasing interest in control of invasive species and planting native alternatives.

Tree of heaven is an invasive species and favorite food of the spotted lantern flies. (Photo: Kevin Farrell)

“We’re jumping at an opportunity,” says Jacob Kearney, conservation program specialist for the district.

The district has applied for and received U.S. Forest Service funding since 2017 to plant roughly 30,000 native trees, including along Oatka Creek, to replace tree canopy damaged by the invasive emerald ash borer, Kearney says. The district works closely with county parks staff, helping to identify invasive plants for removal such as the angelica tree, found in Mendon Ponds Park and Durand Eastman Park.

Kearney urges landowners to become familiar with resources such as Cornell Cooperative Extension, which provides information on plants as well as advice on how to remove invasives.

“Sometimes going at it for removal might be worse,” Kearney says. “For a serious infestation, it’s not one and done.”

The district is seeing an uptick in interest in its annual discount tree and shrub sale, which continues until March 1. In 2019, roughly 300 customers bought 17,432 seedlings, and by last year those numbers had jumped to 500 and 21,470.

“I would say you definitely notice a shift in recent years in more people caring about the environment, caring about planting native,” Kearney says.

Kathryn Amatangelo, an assistant professor in plant ecology at SUNY Brockport who partners with the county conservation district on projects, says it’s worthwhile to prioritize efforts against non-native plants that cause more harm than others. Knotweed and the common reed—distinct from native reed—form dense monocultures that crowd out other plants, while some non-natives don’t spread intrusively.

“The sad thing is, once you have an infestation, pretty much the only way to get rid of it is to use chemicals or dig out all of the dirt and roots,” Amatangelo says. “Prevention is key.”

The Genesee Land Trust develops a plan for all of its 19 nature preserves, which total 7,500 acres, says spokesperson Elliotte Bowerman. In some instances, it can make more sense to cut a plant every year instead of digging eight feet to try to eradicate it, Bowerman says. On some tracts, such as the Cornwall Preserve in Williamson, Wayne County, a multiyear process has involved chemical eradication of invasive plants including garlic mustard and honeysuckle, and planting 2,500 saplings.

PRISM is constantly monitoring plant threats, with two of the newest warnings being for chocolate vine and sticky sage. Chocolate vine has been spotted overtaking older invasive vines on the side of a building in Ithaca, while sticky sage, first seen 10 years ago in a small patch near Colgate University in Hamilton, has spread to cover five acres.  

The organization’s specialists are happy to consult with property owners about invasive or native plants, and it provides an online database. PRISM encourages volunteers to report unusual plant sightings through iMapInvasives.   

John Nelson, one of the weekly volunteers at Durand Eastman and a tour guide in the spring and fall, says winter is a great time for gardeners to begin research. Nelson, who went through Cornell Cooperative Extension’s volunteer master gardener training program about 10 years ago, was surprised to learn then that he had invasive plants on his own property.

“In many cases they’re innocuous looking,” Nelson says, citing examples of some of the common culprits, such as burning bush, honeysuckle, and barberry. Cornell is one of the organizations that will happily provide advice for removal and replacements, he says.

New volunteers are welcome in the master gardener program as well, Nelson notes.

“I’m really excited about how people are getting more interested in pollinator-friendly gardens,” he says. “There’s so much more focus on being nature-friendly in the garden.”

Janice Bullard Pieterse is a freelance journalist and author of ” Our Work Is But Begun: A History of the University of Rochester 1850-2005.” The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “Fighting back against natural invaders

  1. Does anyone know if financial aid for homework (local, federal, state, or not-for-profits) is available for seniors in Rochester with large plots with dozens of trees killed by various invasive insects and diseases? About twenty previously thriving trees, now dead, must be cut down and removed before they fall on their own and damage wires or structures. I don’t have the funds to pay $2,000 a tree to have them removed.

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