Friday, June 18, 2010

Gardening in Thatcher Woods, With Help

Last Saturday was the monthly workday at my "natural home," Thatcher Woods Savanna, along the Des Plaines River. As I've mentioned before, managing a natural area is like gardening on a very large scale. And you need plenty of hands to help, especially when dealing with invasive species. One shrub we are constantly trying to contain is non-native buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica and R. frangula and four others). Along with garlic mustard (see my post here), it is a plant I love to get rid of.

Buckthorn is a very nice, good looking shrub with dark glossy leaves, orange inner bark and berries that birds adore. It was brought to the States in the 19th century as a useful hedging material. With the help of the birds, it soon escaped and found our woods and savannas entirely to its liking. So much so that with no natural predators, it soon became the biggest bully in the woods, growing to the size of small trees and shading the ground so that native forbs couldn't get enough light. If only the deer would find it palatable! More information is available at Wisconsin DNR and Illinois DNR.

In Illinois six varieties of non-native buckthorn were declared illegal to buy or sell in 2003, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, saw-toothed buckthorn, Dahurian buckthorn, Japanese buckthorn and Chinese buckthorn. Yet I have since then occasionally seen it for sale, most recently a new cultivar called "Fineline," touted as having fewer berries. No matter, it is still R. frangula, and still illegal in Illinois.

 In Thatcher Woods, the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project manages buckthorn in a very direct way: we cut it down and then we burn it. Some people also cut it down and take it home to build rustic fences and trellises, for which the wood is admirably suited. When our group, headed by Victor and Jean Guarino, started twenty years ago, the woods were full of buckthorn and little else. Once the buckthorn was controlled, the native seed bank burst into germination and what had been a depauperate woods is now a fine area where flourish a number of rare and even conservative species.

 This chopping and burning is a lot of work, though worthwhile. Last Saturday, our small group was augmented by some enthusiastic members of two high school ecology clubs. One group had come from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to join students from Oak Park and River Forest High School. The two groups are planning a trip to Africa for a service project and wanted to get to know each other. What better way than working together in the woods?
The conditions were pure woodsy, riparian Illinois: warm, muggy and overcast, with plenty of hungry mosquitoes. Yet these students worked with a will. It was a pleasure to observe how they went at the twenty-foot tall buckthorn shrubs, cut them up and lugged them to the fire. They opened up a large area among the oaks, giving the Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon's seals and other species light to photosynthesize and room to grow. When mugginess morphed into thunderstorms, we had to scatter, but good work had been accomplished, and I feel sure the students knew one another a bit better. I predict their trip to Africa will be successful.

Group photo courtesy Victor Guarino, Steward of Thatcher Woods.  Forest Preserve volunteer information can be found at this Forest Preserve District of Cook County website.

5 comments:

Edith Hope said...

Dear Adrian, This is a most interesting and informative posting as I had not realised what a monster Buckthorn so very clearly can be. I do so admire you for not only your concern to control [if not eliminate] it, but also your will to do something really practical about the problem. And how really good to see so many young people involved with the project.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the variety of your posts, as well as your lively writing.
The Blooms Day post was delightful!
The Thatcher Woods projects have been ongoing long enough now for you to really "see what you have wrought." Any way to get other young groups out there to grapple with nature, and understand why it is important to return the area to its proper being?
Continued good luck!
M.

Meredehuit ♥ said...

What a wonderful project you are invloved in! May you feel the joy and the blessings for all the good you do. :)

Alice Joyce said...

This is my old stomping ground, as they say! Makes me feel nostalgic for Chicago.

We fight a variety of invasives in the woodlands and meadows here - the worst is broom. It's an ongoing battle each year. But I know you would understand.

My husband would bike for nearly an hour to his allotment in a clearing in the forest preserves when we lived in Chicago. But we had to have those succulent tomatoes he grew. Our own trove each year!

Buck Chick said...

An insirational story. Your dedication over 20 years working to reduce these weeds and allow your local indigenous plants that chance to return. The students lending a helping hand gave me real hope for the future of our wonderful biodiversity.