Transforming Upton Hill Regional Park

Photo of two volunteers in the woods helping each other cut down vines with a loper

Text and photos by Devin Reese unless otherwise noted.

Many people know Upton Hill Regional Park for its popular recreational facilities—batting cages, mini golf, water park, and new climbing structure. The Park has its share of history, too, as a strategic vantage point used by both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. But a walk with Park Steward Jill Barker, on trails that wind through about 15 acres, reveals a wild side of the park. 

Upton Hill harbors one of the few remaining forests in the Seven Corners area. With the hill standing at 402 feet, its naturally terraced layers purify the water emerging in seeps and springs at its base. Water percolates down through sieve-like layers of rocks and soils, getting naturally freer of particles as it goes. “The water originating from the Upton Hill springs has not been tested but may represent the highest quality natural water within Arlington County.” Natural Resource Specialist Greg Zell.

Photo of a stream in the park
Natural spring at the base of the park.

Every Thursday and monthly on Saturdays, Jill Barker leads groups of volunteers to remove invasive plants (RIP) from the park. 

Photo of a volunteer holding an invasive plant
Upton Hill Park Steward Jill Barker explaining which plants are invasive.

The Saturday I went, she gathered up the new people, equipped us with tools, and gave a walking orientation to the ongoing work to restore the park to native species. Jill explained how removal of the surfeit of invasives such as English ivy (Hedera helix), kudzu (Pueraria montana), and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), continue to open up space for native species to take hold. While saplings, such as oaks and elms, have been planted, she and NOVA Parks staff are also holding out hope that the seed bank in the soil will germinate to yield some long-dormant native plants. 

For example, Jill saw her first ephemeral flower in the park last year, a delicate, native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) known as a harbinger of spring. As we approached the park’s natural seeps, we found a gentle slope dotted with fan clubmoss, also called ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum). Upton Hill is the only place that it grows in Arlington.

Photo of moss on the forest floor
Native Fan club moss.

Jill also pointed out the lone skunk cabbage plant (Symplocarpus foetidus)—which indicates good wetland habitat quality—peeking its first leaves up in the seep. We did not find the park’s two extremely rare flowers: Turtle Head (Chelone spp.), named for it two-lipped flowers that show up in late summer and fall; and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), the rarest of the three Toxicodendron species in Virginia that is found at only two spots in Arlington.

What we did see in abundance is poison sumac’s familiar and equally-feared cousin, poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), snaking its way up trees.

Native to the east coast of North America, poison ivy belongs in the park, despite its toxicity to humans. And poison ivy is actually beneficial to many animals that eat the plant and use it as shelter or visit its flowers. Jill provided the volunteers with preventative skin wipes before we began immersing ourselves in invasives removal. And we discussed how it looked in vine versus leafing form, sometimes branching out onto trees in a weblike structure. 

Jill explained how, when she first started working in this park in 2019, the ground and trees were covered with invasive vines making a roof like a European Cathedral. 

Photo of trees and forest floor covered in vines
Upton Hill being overrun with invasive plants before the RIP program began.

“It was just horrible,” said Jill. Much of it was an invasive plant called five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata). Along with Japanese bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), it has been diminished through a combination of hand removal and targeted application of herbicides by NOVA Park’s invasive plant control contractors. 

Thanks to the context Jill provided, we went to work with our clippers and handsaws with a clear sense of purpose. A couple of us tackled a dense tangle of Japanese bush honeysuckle and a wickedly spiny invasive called multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). It was prickly work, making one wish they had worn thicker pants and an impermeable jacket. But the tugging and clipping brought steady, satisfying results. Under the seemingly impenetrable mass of vines, we found native holly plants fighting for sunlight. “Free the holly!” became our mantra.

Photo of two volunteers in the woods helping each other cut down vines with a loper
Jill (left) and Volunteer Sue removing invasive honeysuckle vines.

Our several hours of work were a drop in the bucket in the hundreds of hours that staff and volunteers, including Boy Scouts of America and Mormon Missionary groups, have worked in Upton Hill Park. Invasives have been cut and pulled out. Cages have been erected around native saplings to protect their bark because deer love to scrape antlers on them. Jill is hoping that funding comes through for a 30 x 30-foot deer exclusion fence to see how a patch of soil freed from both invasive plants and deer browse responds.

Photo of a tree with damaged bark
Damage to a sapling from deer antler rubbing.

Jill Barker’s delight in the changes she has helped make to the park is palpable. And she looks forward to the long-term goal of not only restoring Upton Hill Park’s native vegetation, but also developing a wildlife corridor to the almost contiguous Powhatan Spring Park . (See related success story about work done at Powhatan.) This corridor will be a victory for those who have worked to remove the invasives, but more importantly, to the animals that depend on the native plants that can emerge!

Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service

Five-Leaf Akebia (Akebia quinata): 

Photo of a white flower with green leaves
Five-Leaf Akebia (Akebia quinata). Photo by Ursus sapien via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA.

A woody, invasive plant, the five-leaf akebia can rapidly blanket an ecosystem. It’s one of about 40 species in the Lardizabalaceae family that’s native to Asia. A. quinata grows as a vine, spreading onto trees through vegetative propagation. It also spreads through sexual reproduction via pale purple to whitish clusters of flowers. A. quintana was purportedly introduced to the U.S. in 1845 by Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who had visited the island of Chusan in China. The 19th century witnessed its rapid spread through propagation as an ornamental for trellises and fences. Despite its deleterious impact on biodiversity, A. quinata is unfortunately still sold by U.S. plant nurseries. The flowers smell like chocolate, thus its nickname, chocolate vine. Learn more about Five-Leaved Akebia at: https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/3933

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