Restoring Nature by Whittling Away at Woodlawn Park’s Invasive Plants

Photo of a group of volunteers posing with a bucket and tools.

Text and photos by Devin Reese, except as noted.

A volunteer is bending over by a creek.
ARMN Volunteer Becky Hamm looking for small invasives sprouting up.

I joined a group of volunteers recently who were getting ready to attack exotic invasive plants on the banks of Lubber Run stream. The site—Woodlawn Park—is a small park tucked into a residential neighborhood in Arlington. Perhaps its diminutive size explains how well its invasive plants are being addressed, or perhaps it should be credited to the enthusiasm and dedication of its volunteers.

Beth Kiser is the volunteer ARMN Park Steward for Woodlawn Park and the lead for the ARMN Park Stewards Program. (Park Stewards are Adopt-a-Park leaders who oversee volunteer stewardship work in Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church parks and engage with neighboring park communities.) Beth said that she is about five years into organizing volunteer work in Woodlawn Park and that, thanks to a cadre of regular monthly volunteers and support and coordination from Arlington County staff, the site has gradually transformed. 

Another neighborhood volunteer explains that “We’ve been working for a long time on removing the bush honeysuckle.” According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, “Bush honeysuckles can rapidly invade and overtake a site, forming a dense shrub layer that interferes with
the life cycles of many native woody and herbaceous plants.” Today, the group is equipped with a Weed Wrench to wrest any bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) out by the roots without disturbing the soil. Watching another volunteer tackle a different invasive plant, porcelain-berry vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), a volunteer laments that, “It’s so evil. Porcelain-berry deserves more [removal] attention.” Like the bush honeysuckle, porcelain-berry can outcompete native plants for water and nutrients. 

One volunteer holds her phone out
Park Steward Beth Kiser showing volunteer Curt how to use the SEEK app.

Volunteer Curt is working to get the porcelain-berry vine out complete with its roots. “Wow, it does have a huge root. It’s going so far back. Is that normal for porcelain-berry?” As Curt remarks that he’s pretty new to this invasives work and needs people pointing stuff out, Beth shows him how to use the Seek app to help identify plants. The app is a companion to iNaturalist, the online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists who create and share biodiversity information about plants, animals, and other organisms to help people learn about nature. However, Seek is designed to be more youth-friendly by including live AI-based identification using phone camera video as an input. Curt and Beth quickly corroborate that another plant he has removed is a type of privet.  

This is Curt’s first month of volunteering for naturalist habitat restoration projects, and he hopes to get to join the next ARMN training course. He has long been interested in the natural world and would love to improve his skills in identifying organisms, birds in particular. Curt also works as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the paleontology curatorial department. “I work with dead things at the Smithsonian,” he explains. So, this is his chance to work with living things. 

The spines of the black locust tree.

Becky Hamm is a member of the most recent ARMN cohort and volunteering at Woodlawn Park for the first time. Her inspiration to become a Master Naturalist came from living in a place with no outdoor space of her own during the pandemic. Her job in data analytics keeps her indoors. When she moved to a rental place with a yard, she wanted to create something other than a mowed patch; thus, began her exploration of native plants. Becky marvels at a native black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) growing streamside, recognizing its distinctive paired spines, i.e., “big old thorns.”

A volunteer in a winter coat and cap holds a weed that he has pulled from the ground.
Volunteer Joao with a handful of invasive Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), another invasive import that can choke out native plants.

Meanwhile, one of Beth’s regular volunteers is working at the south end of the park. Joao lives a stone’s throw from where he’s removing invasives and has been interested in tending the park since the beginning of Beth’s stewardship program. He waxes poetic about how the program has boosted the number of “beautiful, wonderful birds that come and sing,” including an owl that he recently heard “mewing like a child.” He comes out in the evenings to enjoy nature at dusk. Joao explains that he grew up on Madeira Island, Portugal, in a setting with an abundance of colorful flowers. He returns regularly to Portugal, but also appreciates the Virginia nature right here in his front yard. 

Beth explains that regular, community volunteers like Joao have helped gradually change the park to a wilder space. “It’s looking pretty clean” of invasives, she says, “and I credit all those folks who’ve been coming for a few years now even during the pandemic,” as well as support from Arlington County staff, who provide input on invasive management approaches. Where resources permit, they also arrange for carefully targeted spot treatments of herbicides to address invasives that volunteers can’t remove by hand. This partnership has proven essential, she says, in having lasting impact in restoring the area’s natural spaces and keeping up volunteers’ engagement in the work without getting discouraged.

In the five years of her supporting the park and the ARMN Park Stewards program, Beth is most excited about the native species that pop their heads up through the leaf litter now that there is clear space for them to grow back from seedlings or from dormant seeds in the soil bed. Thanks to getting invasives out of the way, she now sees native plants like wild ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum), asters (family Asteraceae), native black cherries (Prunus serotina.), hollies (Ilex spp.), tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and a few oaks (family Quercus). The native plants in the park appear to be part of two distinct remnant ecological communities that Beth describes as “floodplain forest” and “possibly mesic mixed hardwood,” respectively, pointing to the floodplain area where there are American elms (Ulmus americana), boxelder (Acer negundo), and remnant green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), which is amazing for this small patch of a park.

An up close photo of English ivy
English ivy (Hedera helix) on exposed tree roots.

In some harder-to-access areas in the park, invasives continue to take root. For example, English ivy blankets exposed tree roots in the steep slopes of Lubber Run that get less volunteer attention due to limited access. A volunteer says “Ivy is so evil. I don’t trust it. I always give personalities to the most invasive plants.” By her metric, we are wrestling with a lot of evil plant personalities as we pull, cut, and chop up. In the winter, with most of the plants not in their seeding stage, we can either chop them up and leave them on the ground to add to the valuable forest floor covering, or we can hang them up higher on branches. Beth talks about how people often remove the leaf duff (litter) from the ground, even though it harbors beneficial insects such as butterfly larvae and fireflies, microbes, and nutrients. Allowing the leaves to stay in place over winter can help these insects to thrive.

Serrated shovel that works well for extracting privets.

Eventually, ARMN volunteer Hal Cardwell climbs down into the stream valley with Beth’s specialized shovel (which she in turn had learned about from another neighborhood volunteer). Capitalizing on its serrated edges, he’s able to extract several well-anchored privets from the soil. A few slices and the privets are out!

An upclose photo of a weed pulled from the ground
Oriental False Hawksbeard plant removed with its roots.

Even as the group wraps up for the day, we find a few more opportunities for restoration. Curt spots a flowering plant on the streambank near where we started our work, and Beth excitedly says “Get it. That’s a Rose of Sharon with seed pods!” Indeed, this invasive’s fluffy brown flowers taunt us from their skinny stalks. Curt reaches down and gingerly pulls the Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) out, careful to include the whole tap root. Right at our feet, Becky finds an errant Oriental False Hawksbeard plant (Youngia japonica) anchored to the ground. “It’s really aggressive,” says Beth, as Beth lays it—conquered—on a rock. 

Even at such a well-tended site, there are no shortage of opportunities for volunteers to battle invasives and improve its ecological quality through native plant regeneration. As we clean up, Beth tells us about the fireflies (Photinus pyralis)—an indicator of ecosystem health—that blink in the restored riparian vegetation along the stream during the warm months, and attract community members to gather and celebrate them together one night each June. The work today that helped to preserve a home for these beloved creatures was indeed well worth it.

Photo of a group of volunteers posing with a bucket and tools.
Volunteers after the day’s work. Photo by Beth Kiser.

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

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) Black locust, considered invasive in some states, is native to eastern North America from Pennsylvania to as far south as Georgia. When British colonists encountered the plant in 1607, they recognized its resemblance to Old World Locust and named it accordingly. A member of the pea family with pairs of round leaflets on spiny branches, black locusts improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen at their roots. The black locust produces fragrant white flowers with copious nectar that attracts native bee species, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Although toxic to some livestock, black locust provides habitat for native wildlife, including nesting songbirds and foraging deer. Learn more about black locust here.

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