Thursday, June 9, 2022

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes - The Aesthetic Appeal (and Serious Problem) of Invasive Plants

June 9, 2022


Many alien-invasive plants, such as this Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora )which cause problems were originally imported for their aesthetic or practical value. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.

In front yards and sidewalk cracks, at the edges of driveways and in overgrown garden beds, the plants one encounters on an afternoon walk in the suburbs can often provide clues about the history of land use. In some ways, the history of much of New England can be painted in broad strokes, with many subtle stories along the way.  From the different land use practices of indigenous people/first nations, to the arrival of Europeans who made major, often violent changes to delicate ecosystems in pursuit of profit as they turned wetlands, forests, and meadows into farm fields and the raw stuff of industry, until the centers of profit shifted once again and farms and pastures turned into subdivisions and cities, each change leaves its fingerprints on the land and waters around us.

Often, as I walk around my neighborhood and similar areas I find myself imagining what these places looked like in these earlier eras, when the world moved at a slower pace, when the sidewalk beneath my feet was once a dirt path winding through the woods, and the stone walls that criss cross the yards and conservation land once represented the boundaries of neighboring farms. These flights of imagination are interspersed with reminders of the more immediate impact of people on the land in the form of non-native ornamental and in some cases very invasive and damaging plants. All of this begs the question as to why people put these plants in their yards and gardens. Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is that as humans we find things that are both somewhat unusual and colorful, to be attractive and so people plant them without much knowledge of the natural history or environment of the organisms they are adding to the land. In some cases these ornamentals spread slowly and can coexist alongside native plants, while in others they spread rapidly, disrupting and damaging the ecosystem. Such plants escape cultivated land and spread with abandon, such as Multiflora Rose, an admittedly eye-catching plant with lovely white flowers. But of course appearances are deceiving in this case, and while the visual appeal of this plant is undeniable, its damage to native planet communities is also clear.

When it comes to mitigating the impact of alien invasive plants  in our present age we have some tools in place like import controls and state laws designed to limit the spread of these plants. But in some cases, alien invasives became established  decades or even centuries before such controls were in place, and in the case of Multifloras Rose, which arrived in the US sometime in the late 1700’s and was likely used initially for erosion control, this organism has had over 200 years to spread throughout the country. 

Beach Rose (Rosa Rugosa) can be found along coastal areas in much of New England. While it may add a nice pop of color to the dunes and beaches, this plant has gained a foothold in places where it has disrupted local ecosystems. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022

Multiflora Rose is not the only plant that was introduced with the best of intentions in the US, only to escape and prove less than benign. Another beautiful flower which has no place in our natural landscape is the Beach Rose (Rosa Rugosa), a plant I noticed for the first time while birding in Connecticut at Hammonasset Beach State Park. As I wandered along the sandy paths I stopped to take a number of photos of these beautiful flowers lining the walkways and nestled in among the dunes. Of course the spell was broken as soon as I used my plant ID app and discovered that it is the beauty of these plants which enticed horticultural enthusiasts into giving them a foothold in places like Connecticut and many other coastal areas of New England.

Even though I am under no illusion with respect to the changes that humans have made to the natural environment for thousands of years now, there is something about seeing so many plants out of place that I find particularly disheartening, perhaps because it reminds me of the profound (and extraordinarily dangerous, in the long run) disconnect that most people feel from the natural world. Fortunately, organizations like The Native Plant Trust in Framingham, MA and nurseries like Prairie Moon Nursery, which not only provide there actual plants that we can use to begin to restore our natural environment to some extent, but provide education and information that can help us to do in a sustainable and informed way.

And there are some places here I do find important native plants on my neighborhood walks, including Common Milkweed poking up beside an old stone wall each spring, and the clusters of litter white asters that I can count on each autumn. Seeing them does give me a little hope that these organisms can hang on, despite human neglect or interference, and if we give them and their kin a boost by encouraging people to plant natives and use organic methods, maybe we can not only restore some of the more crucial components of our native plant communities, but prevent the next wave of invasive plants from gaining a foothold in our environments.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022

Friday, June 3, 2022

Welcoming Beneficial Wasps Into the Garden




A Blue Mud Dauber among the Milkweed. Photo Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.


June 3, 2022

One of the more delightful things about creating pollinator gardens, and generally replacing lawn grass or alien ornamental plants with native plants is that it’s not only butterflies and hummingbirds that show up, but a really interesting range of other types of pollinators which are perhaps less commonly noted by the casual gardener. As I’ve built up the native plant and pollinator gardens around my yard these last three years I’ve been endlessly fascinated not only with the  perhaps expected Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that stop by on their daily rounds, or the Monarchs on the Milkweed, but by the range of other kinds of pollinators which are drawn to this little patch of native plants.

One of the first visitors I began to notice last summer once the Milkweed and Bee Balm was in bloom were two species of solitary wasps: Blue Mud Dauber (Chalybion californium) and Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumonea), both of which seem to be well-established in and around the back garden. These two species are generally not aggressive towards humans, but if you’re grasshopper in the case of the latter, or another species of mud dauber in the case of the former, it would be prudent to exercise caution: The Golden Digger Wasp hunts, paralyzes, and provides grasshoppers as food for their offspring inside a sealed tunnel, and the Blue Mud Dauber is known for finding its way into the nests of other species of Mud Dauber where, not unlike our local Brown-Headed Cowbirds with respect to other songbirds, it then removes the eggs of its near relative and leaves behind its own, using parasitism as a strategy for survival. Although I’ve yet to see these two creatures in the garden this year, my guess is it’s still a bit early, and as the Common and Swamp Milkweed in the garden move closer to flowering, these species of beneficial insects will once again be buzzing around the flowers.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Woodrow Dines on The Deck


Our resident Woodchuck decided to try something new this evening, snacking on some potted violets on our back deck.

June 1, 2022

Some of the animals that show up in our yard are undoubtedly passing through, on their way to or from some other woodsy place in town. The doe and her fawns, the rowdy group of male Wild Turkeys, the coyotes we hear at night - they wander through on their way to somewhere else and we are content to see them as they appear. With others, though, we clearly share this little patch of suburban forest, and the dean of the hyper-local inhabitants is undoubtedly our resident Woodchuck, whom we have named Woodrow. Our first summer here Woodrow made regular appearances in the backyard during the day, munching on grass and other greens, waddling cautiously from one place to another in his little fiefdom, and then the second summer he was conspicuously absent. This spring Woodrow has appeared again with some regularity, and this evening he surprised us by climbing the few steps beside the back pollinator garden onto our deck, where he dined on some potted violets. It was hard to tell if he found them very palatable, for a minute or two into his meal he stood up, turned, and galloped, in a fashion, back toward his burrow beneath the shed.

Many people who covet picture perfect lawns curse the Woodchuck, and I admit, should Woodrow turn his attention to excavation close to the house I may need to have a serious conversation with him, but as a fellow inhabitant of this land, I enjoy watching him as he goes about his daily business, ambling through the grass in search of tasty things to eat.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Rewilding Suburbia - Part 1

May 31, 2022



In order to help make our yard more attractive to wildlife and give the landscape a more natural feel we've been adding not only smaller flowering plants, but native trees and shrubs as well, including this Silky Dogwood shrub (cornus amomum). This plant arrived in bare root form from Prairie Moon Farms and went into the ground last autumn. In order to give it plenty of room to spread out I cut back a rhododendron that was running wild across an old flower bed. When fully mature, this shrub should reach 6'-10' feet in height. Photo Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.

It’s been quite some time since I last posted anything on this blog, and to be honest, many other writing projects have come and gone in the intervening period, and the efforts I put into this nature blog had faded from memory. In fact, I think I pretty much forgot it existed.

And then we were hit by a global pandemic in early 2020, and to escape the depressing claustrophobia of life largely confined to home I turned my attention to writing about the natural world once again, turning early morning forays to little ponds and suburban parks into short essays I collected in a manuscript. That manuscript still sits on a hard drive, because when I went back to read it and edit it, I found it rather depressing. Then I started to write something else, but that petered out as well. Such is the act of writing I suppose. As any honest writer will relate, their files - be they physical, digital, or mental - contain far more half-finished pieces and scraps of ideas than ever see publication.

Part of what drove the first year pandemic nature essay project was a desire to give myself the (admittedly delusional) goal of creating a sense of control in a world that felt like it was fraying at the edges. In terms of structure, this effort was designed to reflect not only the similarities and differences I saw in the landscape between and among the seasons, but to try and capture the edges where they overlap - seasonal ecotones one might call them, I suppose.

For now, that work sits on a shelf. I may return to it one day, or I may let it remain as it is, a raw account of a year spent seeking solace in the forests and meadows close to home.

In the meantime one of the most exciting ongoing projects I’ve embarked upon has been a small-scale rewinding effort in the yard around my home. In broad strokes, this effort has been comprised of several key elements:

  1. Removing alien-invasive plants
  2. Plating species of plants native to the eastern US and specifically New England, including various Milkweeds, Asters, Lupine and others, and allowing native plants to fill in open spaces on their own
  3. Using organic gardening techniques to encourage the growth of native plants to improve the soil,  and avoiding the use of gas-powered mowers, blowers, etc.
  4. Adding brush piles, bird feeders, bird baths, and allowing snags to stand (when and where safe)

The removal of alien-invasive plants is admittedly a frustrating aspect of this work, because, as the name implies, these plants have not evolved along with our native plant communities or in concert with out local wildlife or other conditions, and so they wreak havoc on the inner workings of local habitats. Many of these plants seem to thrive in their new homes, as they hav practically no natural controls to keep them in check. 

While this yellow bloom may look nice - and undoubtedly it adds a nice pop of color in its native land, this Creeping Buttercup (Rananculus repens) has ranged beyond its historical borders and spread aggressively as an invasive plant in the United States. Photo Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.

Unlike some of the naturalized plants which remain reasonably in place and at least have the decency to provide shelter for birds and bugs, these alien invasive have few redeeming qualities in comparison. Whether artifacts of ornamental imports or stowaways from the dawn of global shipping, the Japanese Knotweed, Oriental Bittersweet and Garlic Mustard I regularly try to eradicate often defy my best efforts. In fact, part of me wonders, as I remove patches of grass and hack away at the rhodedendrons to make more room for the Silky Dogwood that entered the earth as a bare root plant last fall, whether I’m disturbing the soil and inviting in the poison ivy (native, but not near the house, thank you very much) and its more noxious compatriots into new parts of the yard.

Nonetheless, I shall continue to pull them up.

The more time I spend on this aspect of rewinding the more I realize how little all of us - myself included - often know about our native plant communities, and frankly lack the ability to really understand the roles that different plants play. Such ignorance often leads to all sorts of wrong-headed thinking.

The concept of “weeds” is a good example - what we might think of as “weeds” are often in fact native plants which may have lacked agricultural value or appeared “untidy” to the modern gardener.  Ironically, many people are quick to mow down (literally and figuratively) the native plants that will help to improve their soil and the overall quality of their immediate natural environment, believing that they are making their yard “better.” Then, in place of these plants which have evolved over millennia to thrive in concert with their fellow native flora and fauna, many people are quick to lay down hyper-thirsty grasses which are ill-suited to our suburban lawns. To the ignorant eye these acres of yard may look nice, but in reality they are often utterly devoid of life, true wastelands.

On a positive note, however, I have found that when I’ve made space for these native plants they often find their way back, springing up where undoubtedly their ancestors once stood tall in the sun. Human intervention is admittedly helpful in order to have these returning plants thrive. I’ve spent my share of time clipping bindweed that’s wrapped itself around the Bee Balm, or pulling up cinquefoil that’s edging its way a bit too close for comfort around the Swamp Milkweed in the back pollinator garden.  One of my favorite plants that popped up during the first summer was American Pokewood, a thick green stock with lovely purple berries that is toxic for mammals but a critical  food source for migrating birds in the fall. Along the edge of the house wild raspberries have also lifted themselves up from the soil, and I’m hopeful that even if we don’t get to enjoy the fruit, the local wildlife will.

This is of course part of the thrill of this endeavor, first we see what native plants might return on their own or thrive when planted in the right spot, sunny or shady, damp or dry, according to their preference. And once the plants begin to thrive the pollinators take notice, drawing in the butterflies, moths, flies and hummingbirds which bring life back into this space that was once a patch of grass.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2022.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Late December at Chestnut Hill Reservoir

With unusually warm weather in New England this late fall and early winter, some of my go to places for ducks have not been as productive as usual. I'm guessing this has to do with an abundance of open water this year, while over the last few years most lakes and ponds have been frozen in December, thus helping to concentrate the birds in the few places that are not iced over. In any event, yesterday the temperature was hovering around an unseasonably balmy 60 degrees, so I headed to one place where I've always had pretty good luck, regardless of the weather: Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston, MA.

Although I don't go birding there perhaps as often as I should, I do find that whenever I make the time to walk around the reservoir I'm usually rewarded with lots of ducks and this time was no exception. As soon as I approached the parking area I could see several groups of different size ducks floating on the water, so I had a good sense that I would put together a reasonably diverse list. For whatever reason the reservoir was extremely low, exposing lots of rock formations which I had never seen before. Some of the birds took advantage of these newly exposed perches, including a solitary Great Blue Heron standing tall among a group of Canada Geese out toward the middle of the water.

While there were probably in excess of 150 Canada Geese in the area, the most abundant duck of the day were the Ruddy Ducks - I counted approximately 100 of these small diving ducks and I'm guessing there were likely more. They were clumped up in several rafts around the edge of the reservoir, sometimes mixing in with the Mallards and the occasional Hooded Merganser. During my walk I also ran into two other birders who were kind enough to alert me to the presence of an (American) Green-winged Teal and a male Northern Pintail. The teal was hanging out with a few Mallards in a little corner, and it was neat to see these two species side by side and observe the noticeable size difference between the two up close. The Northern Pintail was especially exciting to see - it was very close to the shore (maybe 15 feet away from me) and in gorgeous, bright plumage. While I've seen pintails before on Plum Island, I had never gotten this close to one.

All in all I spent an hour walking around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, enjoying the strange weather and seeing some beautiful birds. Not a bad way to spend a December afternoon.

My complete list for this outing:

Blue Jay
Mourning Dove
Canada Goose
Hooded Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Common Merganser
Green-winged Teal (American)
Great Blue Heron
Northern Pintail
Gull Sp.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Yellow Warblers arrive at Nahanton Park

It's wonderful to be able to look out the window and see bare branches filling in with bright green leaves - not only does it do much to lift my spirits after a very long, cold winter, but it also means that more and more migratory birds should be showing up in the wetlands, forests and rivers. This past week I had a chance to get over to one of my favorite places in Newton to go birding, Nahanton Park. This is a great birding spot because it has a nice mix of open meadow, forest and community gardens which attract a range of birds, from warblers to grosbeaks to swallows. it's a nice place to visit year-round, but I especially love it in the spring when the air is full of birdsong.

Two male Downy Woodpeckers inspect a tree trunk at Nahanton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wandering through the lower gardens I was surrounded by the singing of male Yellow Warblers. these small, bright yellow warblers with crimson streaked-chests have a distinctive appearance and song, and are often found in brushy, wet habitat. There was also a gray catbird singing from a hidden perch in some low trees and shrubs, letting loose it's incredibly varied, complicated song. While the Yellow Warblers were the only warblers I encountered there, this is usually a pretty good spot for other warblers, including Black and White. Now that spring is finally here I'm looking forward to more birding at Nahanton Park and adding new species to my list for this location.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Birding Florida, part 2

A Tricolored Heron wades in the shallows at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Palm Beach County, Florida. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

One of the most beautiful and productive spots I've ever been birding has to be the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a gorgeous and easily accessible park with a long, winding boardwalk that takes visitors over and through a remarkable mix of marsh, pond and edge habitat filled with a wide range of avian and reptilian life. We were very lucky to get there on a bright, beautiful morning, before the park got too crowded and I was struck right away by the abundance of birds everywhere, from Tricolored Herons to Common Gallinule and Anhinga.

The boardwalk at Wakodahatchee Wetlands offers prime viewing of an amazing range of birds and other wildlife, including alligators. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

I was particularly excited to see the Tricolored Herons, a new life bird and one that I was able to see up close from the boardwalk. The air above the boardwalk was alive with the flapping wings and awkward flight of Anhinga moving from one tree to another, and in the vegetation there were plenty of Little Blue Hersons, Green Herons and Blac-Crowned Night Herons on the lookout for their aquatic prey. We were also lucky enough to get a really good look at a pair of Blue-Winged Teal, a bird I had only previously observed at a distance.

An Anhinga in a tree gathers vegetation, presumably for a nest. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
Overall this was one of the best places I have ever been birding and would highly recommend it to both beginning and advanced birders -  the opportunity to see a range of wading species, ducks and other birds up close which are normally difficult to spot is not only a lot of fun, but also affords the chance to sharpen ID skills and observe a range of behaviors, from feeding to nesting. I know I can't wait to get back.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.