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Concerned Resident Warns Of Invasive Plants Affecting Wildlife, Natives



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Over the years, Connecticut has faced increased problems with invasive plant species overwhelming residential areas and protected open spaces.

Newtown resident and Protect Our Pollinators (POP) member Christine St Georges is taking the initiative to go beyond tending to her own property. She is now volunteering with Newtown Forest Association (NFA) to help eliminate the invasive plants throughout its trails.

She has begun posting videos on the NFA’s Facebook page, facebook.com/newtownforestassociation, to show how people can properly identify the invasives and remove them.

When St Georges moved to town in 2010, she found herself busy raising young children and working full-time as a teacher. She didn’t give much thought to what was growing wild in her backyard.

After watching some footage of Doug Tallamy, from University of Delaware, about the importance of local ecology, however, her eyes were opened to severe problems with invasive plants.

“I looked outside, and I realized I was surrounded by Burning Bush and Japanese Barberry … I realized these are everywhere and they do not have the strands or connection to our wildlife that are needed,” St Georges said.

According to St Georges, invasive plants are “disastrous” to birds, because it causes them to lose a vital food source in the springtime for their offspring. This is so, because when moths and butterflies unknowingly lay their eggs on invasive plants, those eggs hatch, and the caterpillars do not have the right plant nutrients to eat.

“Birds need to feed their young the baby caterpillars. It’s perfect baby food … Birds don’t just go to the bird feeder, grab a seed, and bring it to their young. It has to be a perfect, mushy caterpillar. Not even a ladybug. We are losing so much of our caterpillar populations because of these invasives,” St Georges said.

Types Of Invasive Plants

Right now, some of the most concerning invasive plants are Japanese Barberry, Garlic Mustard, and Bush Honeysuckle.

St Georges has worked extensively to remove Japanese Barberry from her home, as well as on NFA land.

The shrub forms a dense thicket that shades everything under it and pushes out native trees and plants, causing a lack of biodiversity in the area.

According to the University of Connecticut’s paper “The Barberry — Lyme Disease Connection” by Dawn Pettinelli, UConn Home and Garden Education Center, “The Japanese Barberry also has a multitude of thorns with a sharp barb at each of its many nodes. This leads to it being used widely as a hedging plant as it kept wayward creatures, including children, from passing through. Leaves are small, oval, and plentiful making this a fairly dense shrub.”

As a result, Japanese Barberry is a breeding ground for ticks, some of which are now carrying a new disease strain that has left at least one Newtown resident in the hospital.

Tick larvae thrive in the Japanese Barberry because it gives them more chance of survival on hot summer days. The invasive plant also provides white-footed mice safety from predators, and ticks use them as a blood source.

“These two factors may be responsible for the scientist finding 12 times the number of Lyme disease infected ticks per acre in these areas than in forests and areas devoid of barberry,” the UConn research stated.

To remove Japanese Barberry, people can manually remove it or even burn it.

“I have been going over to the [NFA] property on Castle Hill and been taking a weed wrench into the wetland there where barberry has started to come up and form clusters and clumps,” St Georges said.

As for Garlic Mustard, St Georges explained that it is a spring biannual not native to this area.

“They are these little green plants that shoot straight up from out of the ground. They can get up to three feet tall, but they are usually only about a foot tall. They flower at the top and have these dainty white flowers. They are not particularly showy,” she explained.

These are detrimental to pollinators such as the Virginia white moth, whose caterpillars are a source of food for birds.

“It thinks that plant is a host plant because it is a relative of the Brassicaceae family. It goes over, it lays its eggs on the plant, then the caterpillars hatch and it’s not what they can eat, so they die,” St Georges said. “Then we lose another source of food for birds and pollinators for our plants. What looks like a totally harmless plan is actually robbing our wildlife of these important connections.”

Garlic Mustard is relatively easy to manage because it can be weed whacked or pulled right out of the ground.

St Georges recommends stamping down the soil after it has been disturbed to try and not leave the soil vulnerable to more invasive plants growing in it.

“As long as you keep removing the seeds, it can’t come back in full force next year. It relies on that next batch of seeds,” she noted.

St Georges has also seen that Bush Honeysuckle is growing quickly in Newtown, especially in wet areas where there is a high water table.

“That was another invasive hanging around all the burning bush and barberry that were on the edges of my yard,” she said. “They create these pretty large bushes that almost end up looking like lilacs a little bit, with a different flower.

“It likes to push everything else out and out-compete our native plants … Also, when the leaves fall, as winter approaches, there is something about the tannins in the leaves where they have really high levels and as the leaves decompose in the water, they remove so much of the oxygen out of the water,” she added.

Anything living in that water source will then be impacted from the lack of oxygen in the water.

To remove Bush Honeysuckle, St Georges first uses a chain saw to cut it down to a level stump and then she safely burns the stumps. The latter part should be done by someone experienced to avoid causing outdoor fires. For those without those resources, the plant can also be clipped mechanically.

"I also had a few young ones that started popping up; they were probably in the seed bank waiting to have all that wonderful sunlight now available to them,” she said.

When they are small, they can be easily pulled from the root system.

Action Needed

“There are these amazing connections to wildlife that our plants have. When we bring in plants from all over the world and they escape to our wild places, we don’t know the harm that it’s doing,” St Georges said.

She encourages residents to be proactive to help stop the spread of invasive plants by properly identifying and removing them. She also suggests that residents talk to their landscapers about keeping an eye out for these invasives.

“Every state is dealing with their own invasives. We are not alone here in Connecticut. Our national and state parks and land trusts are filling up with these invasives that have escaped from our yards,” St Georges said. “If we can start taking them out, start educating the public throughout the US, can you imagine how we can help wildlife? It would be the best thing.”

To learn more about invasive plants, St Georges recommends people visit cipwg.uconn.edu.

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Japanese Barberry is an invasive shrub in Newtown that outcompetes beneficial natives and is a nursery for ticks. —photo courtesy Laura Mitchell
Garlic Mustard can grow up to three feet and shoot straight up from out of the ground. The invasive plant flowers at the top and has dainty white flowers. —photo courtesy Laura Mitchell
There are a variety of kinds of honeysuckle, including the viny type pictured. —photo courtesy Laura Mitchell
Newtown resident and Protect Our Pollinators member Christine St Georges uses a weed wrench to remove invasive Japanese Barberry at Newtown Forest Association’s Holcombe Memorial Trail on April 9. —Bee Photo, Silber
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