Text and photos by Devin Reese, unless otherwise noted.
When I arrived to volunteer for a recent invasive removal event at Fort Scott Park in South Arlington, I was drawn to Park Steward Terri McPalmer’s wheelbarrow full of gloves, poison ivy protection, clippers, and other essentials. It also contained a long white metal tool that looked like something you’d use to jack up a car and was branded “Uprooter.”
“What is that?” I asked, which yielded a demonstration of what’s possible with the right tools. Terri showed me and the other handful of volunteers how she positioned the grasping head of the tool at the roots of an invasive bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). When it grabbed correctly, its long sturdy handle allowed her to leverage her weight on the “weed wrench” to hoist the undesirable plant right out of the ground. Getting it positioned just so around the base of the plant was a challenge, but nothing compared to the task of the pickaxing and sawing needed to otherwise remove these invaders. Her efforts were rewarded with the sight of the giant root ball that had been anchoring the bush honeysuckle, helping it get a foothold in this temperate soil.
Volunteers spread out along the trail of the 12-acre Fort Scott Park, looking for other invasives, such as English ivy (Hedera helix) and oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) that would require less charismatic tools than the weed wrench. Some wielded large clippers, which could be used to remove the branches of bush honeysuckle or Nandina (Nandina domestica), with bright red berries toxic to our native birds), to make the roots more visible to the weed wrench.
Others wielded smaller clippers to snip English ivy vines at the base as they snaked upward into trees. Even some of the ivy that had been previously cut some months ago appeared to have slinked itself back up the trees from the roots that remained at the base of the tree. “It’s amazingly tenacious,” said Terri.
As we clipped, pulled, and uprooted our way through the tangles of invasives, some native plants peeked their heads out. We found American hollies (Ilex opaca) that had been blanketed with invasive honeysuckle vines. Underneath tangles of porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) were seedlings of willow oaks seeking sun by spreading their branches out horizontally (see Wildlife below). It was motivating to clear areas around these native plants, reducing the competition they had been facing from exotic invasives that had colonized the park. Terri showed us the dramatic contrast between areas that the volunteer crew had already worked through and areas that awaited attention.
Volunteer Allison McCluskey, an Arlington Regional Master Naturalist trainee, was enthusiastic about her first visit to Fort Scott Park. She explained that she loves just getting out in the field and being physical, which gets her in touch with the human side of land restoration. As a professional, Allison helps protect land for the National Wildlife Refuge System, which can make for lots of desk time. “It’s fun to pull stuff out of the ground,” she said as she took another slice at Nandina with the long clippers. Doug Brown, who completed ARMN training in 2021, agreed. He likes biking to the site and getting the restorative experience of being out in nature. The invasive plant removal takes him back to his roots as a biology major (pun intended).
Working near Allison was long-time Fort Scott volunteer Patty McCarthy. Because she’s a nurse practitioner by profession, the group chose her as the person to spring into action if anyone clonked themselves with the weed wrench. Patty has been a regular volunteer since she and Terri started trying to improve the Park. They both live walking distance away and had already enjoyed trekking through the Fort Scott woods before they each retired. Says Terri, “I guess because I walk through this park all the time, there’s a sense of wanting to care for it.”
Terri liked Fort Scott Park for its proximity to her house, noting that she actually lives on what used to be part of Fort Scott when it was a Civil War fort for the Union Army. Built in 1861, Fort Scott included barracks, officers’ quarters, magazines, a guardhouse, a well, and a flagpole (see http://arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/1965-4-Scott.pdf). During the 1940s, about half of the historic earthworks disappeared under new construction of homes and streets. Later development of playgrounds and other recreation features mostly altered the remainder. However, the observant visitor can find an area adjoining the playground that includes evidence of the original fort.
Terri pointed out that much of what we are standing on might be infill, now capped with layers of soil and plants. Besides beating back the invasives, Terri has worked with the Arlington County Arborist Otis Marechaux to plant more native trees. He targeted Fort Scott and brought tree stewards who, along with some of Terri’s volunteers, got 15 seedlings and 22 saplings into the ground in April of 2022. Thanks to access to a water tank provided by the County, the mix of redbuds (Cercis canadensis), dogwoods (Cornus florida) , shingle oaks (Quercus imbricaria), persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), and other native species have mostly survived the hot summer.
While the volunteer crew was out working, a homeowner living adjacent to the park approached, visibly upset. A brief, cordial discussion ensued about the location of the boundary line between her property and Fort Scott Park. Master Naturalist Colt Gregory explained the goals of the restoration and pointed out some invasive plants that were unsuitable, if not downright poisonous (Nandina) to native wildlife. After the homeowner thanked us for our work, we were all reminded that ARMN restoration projects are about the relationship between people and their natural environments.
Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganisms – Natural Resources Service)
Willow oaks (Quercus phellos) are deciduous trees native to Virginia and the rest of eastern North America from Long Island to Florida. They tend to grow along streams or in uplands with damp soils. You can recognize willow oaks by their long, slender, lanceolate (lance-shaped leaves). The Arbor Day Foundation notes that they grow quickly to a height of 40-50 feet, spreading about 35 feet wide. People appreciate willow oaks for their lumber and pulp, whereas wildlife benefit from their heavy acorn production. Willow oak trees start producing acorns when they’re about 20 years old, after which an individual tree produces up to 70 pounds of acorns per year! Its productivity makes it an important food source for birds (e.g., blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, and wild turkeys) and mammals (e.g., squirrels and deer).
Learn more about willow oaks on the USDA website.