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Conservation Commission Tackles Invasive Plant Crisis At Fairfield Hills



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Newtown Conservation Commission Chair Holly Kocet organized a workday for fellow commissioners and volunteers to get hands-on experience removing invasive plant species from Fairfield Hills Campus on the evening of Wednesday, June 15.

Kocet and Commissioner Mark Boland met at the Keating Farms Avenue cul-de-sac and trekked up the hill to the High Meadow area. Each carried equipment and were ready for the laborious job ahead.

They were joined by Commissioner John Fung and his children, Aaron and Adina, who came to volunteer, too.

The group’s primary focus was to clear out all the Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergia) from the property, as well as any mugwort that continues to creep into the meadow.

Both are invasive plants that are running rampant throughout Newtown, including at residential properties and the Newtown Forest Association’s nature preserves.

Japanese Barberry is a thorny, perennial understory shrub that grows two to five feet tall and creates dense thickets. It has thin, single thorns on its stems and teardrop shaped leaves. Pale yellow flowers develop in clusters on the underside of the branches from April to May, then its bright red berries persist into winter.

“It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing how they are dominating our woodlands and killing our trees and other vegetation,” Kocet told The Newtown Bee in a June 13 e-mail.

In addition to it negatively impacting the environment, the Japanese Barberry is specifically problematic for harboring blacklegged ticks.

“This time of year, ticks are on people’s minds, so I have put together an educational poster for the Conservation Table at the Municipal Building to bring awareness of the barberry-tick connection,” Kocet shared.

The information details that white-footed mice carry ticks and are attracted to Japanese Barberry because it offers them protection from predators. It also provides a moist, cool shelter.

Some of the Conservation Commission’s handouts include studies showing how in areas where barberry was controlled, the infection prevalence of borrelia burgdorferi (the bacterium that causes Lyme disease) was reduced or equal to that of no barberry.

In an article from 2017 by Shyang Puri with NBC Connecticut, it stated that Dr Scott Williams, the lead researcher on Japanese Barberry for the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES), has found a correlation between the invasive plant and an increase in ticks.

“Dr William’s team has found dense thickets of Japanese Barberry all over the state and said it has invaded ecosystems, including forests and wetlands. Their research showed an acre of forest containing Japanese Barberry averages a Lyme disease-carrying tick population that is 12 times higher than forests without it,” the report detailed.

Statewide Change

Despite the devastating effects that Japanese Barberry has for the environment and public health, Kocet reports that it is still sold in Connecticut plant nurseries. However, it is banned in several states throughout New England, including New York and Massachusetts.

The plight of managing invasive plants is happening all across the state. As a result, Kocet has teamed up with Monroe Conservation & Water Resources Commission Chair Barbara Thomas.

“We have started an initiative with support of other town commissions, land trusts, pathways, and like-minded groups to propose a Bill for the January 2023 Legislative Session to get something done about invasives in our state,” Kocet said.

She is passionate about the need for legislative change and encourages others to do their part to help.

Kocet noted in a June 16 e-mail, “The time has come for individuals, along with pollinator pathways, land trusts, town commissions, watershed associations, foresters, and other like-minded groups to come together with one voice. Our state legislators and the Environment Committee of CT General Assembly need to hear our concerns. We need changes to existing law that recognize invasives as an environmental and public health crisis. We need a ban on all invasive plants found by floristic analysis to have invasive potential and our communities need help in dealing with existing infestations.”

To find contact information for Connecticut senators and advocate for this initiative, visit cga.ct.gov/asp/menu/CGAFindleg.asp.

Learn more about Japanese Barberry and its connection to ticks by visiting the Newtown Municipal Center, 3 Primrose Street, to view the Conservation Commission’s poster and pick up informational handouts. The table is located in the building’s main hallway next to the large multicolored turtle sculpture.

Information on invasive species can be found on the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group website at cipwg.uconn.edu.

To find ways you can help, e-mail the Newtown Conservation Commission through dawn.fried@newtown-ct.gov and visit newtownconservation.org.

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

Young Aaron Fung volunteers removing invasive plants at the Fairfield Hills Campus with members of the Newtown Conservation Commission on Wednesday, June 15. —Bee Photo, Silber
Newtown Conservation Commission member John Fung weed whacks invasive plants along the walkway at Fairfield Hills Campus on the evening of June 15. —Bee Photo, Silber
In the hallway of the Newtown Municipal Center, across from the Planning & Zoning Department, is a table with an informational poster and handouts about the connection between Japanese Barberry and ticks. —Bee Photo, Silber
Newtown Conservation Commission member Mark Boland cuts the invasive Japanese Barberry shrub at the Fairfield Hills Campus on Wednesday, June 15. —Bee Photo, Silber
Japanese Barberry can by identified by its stems with teardrop-shaped leaves. —Holly Kocet photo
Japanese Barberry grows into a dense thorny shrub that can be up to five feet tall, as seen here at the Fairfield Hills Campus in Newtown. —Holly Kocet photo
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