Text and images by Devin Reese, unless otherwise noted.
A decade ago, the five-acre James W. Haley Park above Gunston Middle School was a mess. Bill McLaughlin, then Curator of Plants for the U.S. Botanic Garden says, “When I walked my dog in Haley Park, I didn’t like what I saw.” He was referring to a mess of invasive vegetation, such as tangles of porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, syn. Ampelopsis glandulosa var. brevipedunculata).
Jennifer Frum, now the Haley Park Steward, recounts a similar experience. Years ago, as she walked her dog, she noticed thick sleeves of invasive English ivy (Hedera helix) around tree trunks. As a trained Arlington Regional Master Naturalist,
Their mutual concern was the genesis of a collaboration to remove invasive plants (RiP) that is still going strong today. It started small, with Jennifer and Bill, plus a couple of others who have since moved away. But the support of Arlington County and engagement of various groups has magnified the impact of the Haley Park invasives removal program along the way.
First, there were Mormon volunteers. When they launched a new Arlington branch for teens and young adults in 2011, the Mormons included a service component. Bill supervised 100 young Mormon volunteers as they freed large areas of vegetation from the porcelain berry’s hold near the entrance to Haley Park.
Then there were AmeriCorps volunteers pitching in regularly for a year, including an intensive spring break week, to beat back the bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). The first Saturday of every month from 9-11 AM became a standard meetup time for volunteers to team up and do RiP work at Haley Park.
Arlington County also brought a contractor, Invasive Plant Control (IPC), to the task to spray herbicides when needed. The County also plants and encourages natives such as Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).
These days on the first Saturday of every month from 9-11 AM, you’ll still find Jennifer, Bill, and people of a range of ages removing invasive plants at Haley Park.
As Bill shows people how to find and remove porcelain berry, he laments that it’s “like the kudzu of the North,” an infamous weed that has terrorized southeast U.S. ecosystems. He explains that every time you open an area to sunlight, for a road or a trail or a building, you risk nonnative plants getting a foothold.
Listening to the history of invasives removal at this site, I think that it’s like getting dust out of your home. The common burdock (Arctium minus) Bill yanks out is a plant introduced from Europe that he played with as a D.C. area kid—using the seeds like Velcro to stick things together. And the invasive is still here. As Bill says, “We can only do so much, but it feels better than doing nothing.” The fewer invasives, the more natives can make a comeback. Haley Park saw a return of the delicate purple bluets (Houstonia purpurea) this year. (See more about this lovely native below.)
It does feel better, not only to me but to all the other people who came to volunteer one warm Saturday. I met Camila, who got her college degree in an environmental field and signed up to spend more time outside.
I worked alongside an entire family whose youngest squatted down to pull out Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).
And I reminisced with a young man—Reid— about how we took turns at the laborious task of wielding the pickaxe the last time we had crossed paths in Haley Park.
Jennifer, who at 80 years old and now living in Alexandria’s Goodwin House, is still heading this effort every month on Saturday mornings. While she says she gets more tired now that she is older, her enthusiasm for the task is still evident—and shared by follow devotees of Haley Park.
Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service)
Purple Bluets (Houstonia purpurea).
Named for a Scottish surgeon and avid plant collector (William Houstoun, 1695-1733), Houstonia purpurea is native to the eastern half of the U.S. A perennial plant, it blooms in the summer with a dainty white, bluish, or purplish flower, earning its common name of purple bluets. Its pairs of simple, opposite leaves are typical of its family, the Rubiaceae, which also includes the coffee plant. Native American Cherokees used the tiny bluet flowers to treat bladder ailments and cure bedwetting. Purple bluets are now critically imperiled in Texas and Massachusetts, and the variation H. purpurea var. montana in the southern Appalachian Mountains is listed as federally endangered.Learn more about Purple Bluets at: https://wildflowersearch.org/search?&tsn=35051, https://nativeamericanmuseum.blogspot.com/2020/08/medicinal-mondayblue-for-bluets.html, https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=HOPU2, and https://inaturalist.ca/taxa/132219-Houstonia-purpurea.