When Gardening for Wildlife, Pick Local Natives Over Cultivars Every Time

By Nancy Cleeland and Kasha Helget. Photos by Toni Genberg unless otherwise noted.

Looking to attract more insects, birds, and other wildlife to your garden by planting native species? Bravo! With only about 10 percent of our region dedicated to conservation lands, private native gardens are essential for maintaining healthy biodiversity.

But not all “native” plant species are created equal. It’s important to know the difference between true local native plants and cultivars—plants that go by variations of the same name but have been selected for size, color, bloom time, or even “pest resistance.”

According to Alonso Abugattas, Arlington-based author of the Capital Naturalist blog, research increasingly shows that the quest for prettier, smaller, longer-blooming or more vigorous varieties of popular natives is making many of them less attractive or useful to insects, birds and other wildlife. For example, bigger flower petals may come at the expense of nourishing nectar. The same chemical change that leads to redder autumn leaves might turn off an insect looking for a bite.

Not all changes introduced by cultivars appear to hurt their relationships with wildlife, but it’s still unclear what factors are at play.  Until more is known about these relationships, choosing a straight native will always be the safest choice, said Abugattas.

“Why take a chance on using a cultivar that may or may not support wildlife,” he asked, “rather than just choosing what generations of the birds and insects have already chosen through evolution?”

Instead of a cultivar, try a different local straight-species native plant

Matt Bright, who is Conservation Manager at Earth Sangha, the premier supplier of local native plants in the region, said he’s sympathetic to homeowners and landscape designers who use cultivars because they want a certain look or are bound by homeowner association rules. 

At least native cultivars are not harmful in the same way that non-native invasive species are, he said. “But I think sometimes cultivars become a crutch rather than grappling with difficult plant selection questions,” he added. “Maybe instead of dwarf hydrangea, there was the opportunity to use a straight-species Lowbush blueberry [Vaccinium pallidum] or a Mapleleaf viburnum [Viburnum acerifolium]? 

Or instead of planting a ‘gro-low’ fragrant sumac, you could try a Shrubby St. John’s Wort [Hypericum prolificum] or New Jersey tea [Ceanothus americanus]?”

Bright, who oversees seed collections and cultivation of local plants that are used in restoration projects throughout the region, said that when it comes to supporting wildlife, the more local the plant source, the more likely it will be to attract local wildlife.

That’s not to say that wildlife lovers should rip healthy cultivars out of the ground and replace them with locally sourced natives. After all, the cultivars could be providing some value.

“Like most things in nature it’s complicated and there are a lot of moving parts that we don’t understand fully,” Bright said. “That said, I think the evidence is clear that genetically diverse, locally-adapted, straight-species native plants are the gold standard for restoration and are an excellent choice for garden use.”

Looking for a place to purchase local straight species plants? This is one of the best times to find them at Spring native plant sales. 

Photo of two volunteers at a native plant sale
Joan Gottlieb from the Virginia Native Plant Society helps a customer at the 2021 Family Fall Festival at Green Spring Garden, Alexandria, VA.

And for more information on where to find locally sourced native plants, see Plant NOVA Natives and especially their page on cultivars vs. natives for landscape professionals.

Armed with the right information about particular natives and their suitability for your location, you’ll be able to choose plants that will support local native wildlife AND beautify your yard. It’s a win, win!

Photo of a monarch butterfly
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are among the beautiful species attracted by native plants.

Transforming Upton Hill Regional Park

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

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service: “A Day On, Not a Day Off” in Potomac Overlook Regional Park

Text and photos Leslie Cameron unless otherwise noted.

Created in 1994 through federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Senator Harris Wolford and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the National Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service is observed across the country each year and is referred to as “A Day On, Not a Day Off.”  

The Arlington Regional Master Naturalists sponsored several service projects to commemorate the Day of Service, focusing on conservation of our parks and other natural areas and removing non-native invasive plants. 

Originally scheduled for January 17, the Potomac Overlook Regional Park RiP (Remove Invasive Plants) was rescheduled for January 22 because of a winter storm. ARMN member and Volunteer Park Steward Gary Shinners led a group of ARMN and other volunteers who continued the work of removing non-native invasive plants from the park.

Photo of volunteers standing in a circle.
Gary Shinners discussing the work plan for the morning group at Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

With temperatures in the 20s, a group of volunteers gathered to remove several exotic invasives, including east Asian Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla spp.)—which is distinct from our native Northern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera),—Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Multi-flora rose (Rosa multiflora), and Winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus, aka Burning bush), as well as English ivy (Hedera helix). 

English ivy is a very common invasive in Arlington’s parks and in many property owners’ yards.  Learn how this invasive vine kills trees, as well as how to remove it, here.

Photo of two volunteers watching as another volunteer demonstrates cutting a vine
ARMN member and Past-President Marion Jordan explaining to community volunteers how to remove English Ivy from trees.

Early European settlers brought English ivy to North America. As noted, these other invasives were brought from Asia. Once introduced in North America, they escaped cultivation into natural areas and became invasive. Not all non-native plants are invasive, and not all plants that grow aggressively are invasive. Species designated by Virginia as invasive are those introduced by humans into a region where they did not evolve and that cause harm to natural resources, economic activity, or humans. 

What makes a plant invasive? Plants in their native range are kept in check by the predators, herbivores, insects, even fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms that are part of their ecosystem. Plants outside their native range leave many of these ecosystem partners behind, and there is nothing stopping them from taking over and harming our ecosystems. Residents can help by not buying or planting any species on Virginia’s list of invasives.

In addition to removing invasive species, volunteers at Potomac Overlook Regional Park are planting native plants, as funds are available.

The Potomac Overlook event is one of several conservation projects that ARMN sponsored or participated in to commemorate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. (See: ARMN Blog piece listing area MLK Day of Service invasive removal events.) Two of these other projects were at Charles A. Stewart Park in Arlington and at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

ARMN members who lead the Theodore Roosevelt Island invasive removal, from left:  Stephanie Martin (Park Steward), Melanie LaForce, Heidi Moyer (Park Steward), and Maggie Siddle removing invasive plants from the island park. (Park Steward Erica Shifflett not pictured.) Photo by Luis Rodriguez.
Photo of volunteers posing with bagged invasive waste
Invasive removal volunteers at Charles A. Stewart Park in Arlington. Photo by Bill Browning.

While some of the events had to be postponed or cancelled because of adverse weather conditions, many of these opportunities are ongoing, and volunteers are welcome! ARMN has more information on its website on year-round volunteer opportunities in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax County. 

2022 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service Environmental Events

Please join your friends, neighbors, and fellow environmental stewards in participating in the following habitat restoration events during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Enjoy the satisfaction of helping to restore these natural areas. Dress in layers for cold weather, bring work gloves, your own tools, if possible, your own water, and face mask. Please also follow COVID guidelines for each event.
NOTE: Check the event description or its registration page for inclement weather guidelines.


Lacey Woods Park

  • Saturday, Jan. 15, 10 am–Noon
  • Meet in the park field across street from 1126 N. Frederick St, Arlington. Street parking is available.
  • Site Leader:  Nora Palmatier
  • Please register at: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/30E084BA5AE23A1FF2-jan
  • Novice volunteers: Take out your pandemic frustrations by removing invasive ivy to rescue trees and give the native wildflowers space to grow this spring! 
  • Experienced volunteers familiar with invasive plant identification: You will be protecting the forested area by walking through and removing any isolated privet, bush honeysuckle, and other emerging invasives. Please wear a mask during sign-in and if working within 6 feet of another volunteer. Bring gloves, clippers, and hand tools if you have them. Gloves, tools, and instruction will be cheerfully provided to new volunteers. Volunteers under 16 must be accompanied by an adult at all times; volunteers under 18 must be signed in by an adult.

Charles A. Stewart Park Invasive Plant Removal

  • Saturday, January 15, 10 am–Noon
  • Meet at Charles A. Stewart Park, 2400 N. Underwood St. Arlington, VA 22213. 
  • Pre-registration required at: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080f44acae22a7fa7-tuckahoe 
  • Site leader:  Mary McLean
  • This is a continuing project on the third Saturday of each month to reclaim the natural area near Tuckahoe Park from invasive plants. (Because of the frozen conditions, the group is meeting at Stewart Park instead to tackle ivy on trees.) Please bring your own gloves if you have them. If not, gloves are provided along with training and additional tools. Be sure to come dressed for work, wear a mask, long pants, and perhaps bring a hat and water.
  • These events are for volunteers ages 9 to adult. If you are under 18 years old, a parent or guardian will have to sign our volunteer sign-in sheet before you can participate. Training will be provided at the events. 
  • View COVID Safety Guidelines for Volunteering.

Jones Point Park Cleanup with Potomac Conservancy

Roaches Run Cleanup with Potomac Conservancy

Lake Accotink cleanup with Fairfax County Park Authority

  • Saturday, Jan 15, 9–11 am
  • Lake Accotink Park, 7500 Accotink Park Rd, Springfield, VA 22150
  • For details, map to the Park, Covid information, and to register (“I Want to Help”) click: here.


Long Branch Nature Center and Glencarlyn Park

  • Sunday, January 16, 2–4 pm
  • 625 S Carlin Springs Rd, Arlington, VA 22204. Meet in Long Branch Nature Center parking lot.
  • Site leader:  Steve Young
  • Pre-registration is required. https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080f44acae22a7fa7-long
  • There is a 20-person signup limit but if the slots fill, there can be more than one group if needed. 
  • This is a continuing project on the third Sunday of each month to reclaim the natural area near Long Branch Nature Center from invasive plants. Please bring your own gloves if you have them. If not, gloves are provided along with training and additional tools. Be sure to come dressed for work, wear a mask, long pants, and perhaps bring a hat and water. 
  • These events are for volunteers ages 9 to adult. Volunteers under 16 must be accompanied by an adult at all times; volunteers under 18 must be signed in by an adult.
  • View COVID Safety Guidelines for Volunteering.

Theodore Roosevelt Island

  • Sunday, January 16, 9:30 am–Noon NEW START TIME
  • For directions to the Island click: here. Meet at the stone wall on the parking lot side of the footbridge.  
  • Site Leaders:  Stephanie Martin, Heidi Moyer, Erica Shifflett
  • Pre-registration is required: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0a4aa8ab23a0f85-theodore
  • Join Arlington Regional Master Naturalist Park Stewards and National Park Service Weed Warriors to snip non-native vines such as English Ivy and Japanese Honeysuckle from TRI trees.
  • Wear gloves and sturdy shoes (be prepared for mud), and a mask. Bring pruners and hand saws if you have them. (Limited extras will be available.) Volunteers under 16 must be accompanied by an adult; volunteers under 18 must be signed in by an adult.
  • COVID Safety:
    • We will follow CDC protocols and practice six-feet social distancing.
    • Do not attend if you have any COVID-19 indicative symptoms (e.g., dry cough, fever, body aches, sore throat, or rashes).
    • Do not attend if you have had any known exposures (or likely exposures) to individuals positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days.
    • Maintain 6 feet social distance between you and other individuals. 
    • Wear a face mask for the duration of the event, unless you are outdoors with seven or more feet between you and other individuals.
    • Cover any cough or sneeze with the inside of your elbow or a tissue which you then discard.


Woodlawn Park

  • Monday, January 17, 9:30–11:30 am
  • 1325 N Buchanan St, Arlington, VA. Meet at the benches on the west side of the park between N. 13th and N. 14th St. Look for the green “Volunteers at Work” sign and sign-in on the clipboard.
  • Site Leader:  Beth Kiser
  • To register, click: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080e49aaa92da2f58-mlkday 
  • Join Arlington Regional Master Naturalist Park Stewards and community volunteers to preserve and restore the natural areas in the park. No experience necessary. We will focus on removing invasive plants so native plants can regrow and support native pollinators, birds, fireflies, and bats. Wear gloves, long pants, and sturdy shoes, and please bring a mask. Bring tools like weeders and pruners if you have them. (Extras will be available.) This event is for volunteers ages 9+. Volunteers under 16 must be accompanied by an adult; volunteers under 18 must be signed in by an adult.
  • View COVID Safety Guidelines for Volunteering.

Four Mile Run Park

  • Monday, January 17, 10 am–Noon
  • 3700 Commonwealth Avenue and 4131 Mount Vernon Avenue (map). Meet at the trail Kiosk near the playground and MOM’s Organic Market (MOM’s is at 3831 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305). If parking in the MOM’s parking lot, please park at the far side of the parking lot near the futsal court.
  • Site Leader:  Kurt Moser
  • Advance registration is requested and face masks are required during arrival. Even though everyone will be outdoors, social distancing is recommended.
  • Come out for a land-based litter clean-up at Four Mile Run. The effort will focus on litter in the restoration meadow area and the Sunnyside tributary stream, both of which are in much need of attention. Sturdy shoes with good traction are recommended. The streamside area is steep-sloped and muddy; hip boots will be available in a range of sizes for volunteers to use in this area. The restoration meadow area is vegetated and may be muddy.
  • Please note:
    • Snacks, trash grabbers, bags, & gloves will be provided 
    • Please bring your own water in a reusable bottle
    • Dress for warmth, with clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty
    • Other helpful items: hat, multi-tool, or pocketknife

Belle Haven/Dyke Marsh Cleanup and Invasives Removal with National Park Service

  • Monday, January 17, 10 am–Noon 
  • George Washington Pkwy (Belle Haven Rd), Alexandria, VA 22307. See: map. Meet at the Belle Haven Park south parking lot near the restrooms. 
  • For details and to register (“I Want to Help”), click: here.
  • Please join the National Park Service for a Potomac River shoreline trash cleanup and removal of invasive English ivy from trees. You can choose either activity. Social distancing protocols will be followed. Wear sturdy shoes, long pants and sleeves, gloves, and sun protection. Bring your own drinking water. Gloves, if needed, and tools, trash bags, and hand sanitizer will be provided. No prior plant identification experience is required. 
  • Participants will be notified 24 hours ahead of time if cancellation in needed due to inclement weather.

Idylwood Park, Falls Church cleanup with Fairfax County Park Authority 

  • Monday, January 17, 10 am–1 pm
  • 7709 Virginia Ln, Pimmit, VA 22043.
  • For details, map, and to register (“I Want to Help”) click: here
  • Inclement weather information for FCPA events will be noted on the Fairfax County Parks website.

Lakeside Park cleanup with Fairfax County Park Authority (two sessions)

  • Monday, January 17, 12–3 pm (first session)
  • 5216 Pommeroy Dr, Fairfax, VA 22032
  • For details, map, and to register (“I Want to Help”) click: here
  • Inclement weather information for FCPA events will be noted on the Fairfax County Parks website.

Lakeside Park cleanup with Fairfax County Park Authority 

  • Monday, January 17, 1–4 pm (second session)
  • 5216 Pommeroy Dr, Fairfax, VA 22032
  • For details, map, and to register (“I Want to Help”) click: here.
  • Inclement weather information for FCPA events will be noted on the Fairfax County Parks website.

A Wild Turkey Moves to South Arlington

Text and photos by Leah Pellegrino, unless otherwise noted.

In mid-November, residents of a South Arlington condo community welcomed a new, if unusual neighbor—a female Wild Turkey! No one quite knows where she came from, and no male (Tom) turkey has been spotted along with her. She spends her days in a wooded area near the condo development and occasionally ventures into one of courtyards looking for something to eat. We don’t get too close though; she runs off with amazing speed or heads up into one of the trees to escape.

What do Wild Turkeys look like? It’s easy to tell that this is no ordinary bird. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “All About Birds” site, Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are big—about the size of  geese and maybe a bit larger. They are dark in color with brown and white barred wings. The tail feathers are brown and black barred, with a broad black stripe and tipped with white or ivory. Their heads are bare and not covered with feathers—usually greyish in color, with perhaps some red as well.

How does one know if it’s a female or a male Wild Turkey? In the photos on the Cornell Lab site, males have a distinct red beard or on their throats. In fact, their heads are covered with blue and red wattles. They also have a fanned tail. 

Photo of a male wild turkey
Male Wild Turkey, Petra DeBruine/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML101579101).

Females are much darker in appearance with much less red and blue on their heads. They also don’t have the fanned tail; their tails stick straight out.

Photo of a female wild turkey
Female Wild Turkey, Conor Farrell/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML215183481).

Here are a couple of photos taken of the Wild Turkey in South Arlington. As you can clearly see, she’s female.

What do Wild Turkeys like to eat? According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), it seems that acorns are their favorite food, and with all the oaks in her current neighborhood, this Wild Turkey has lots to eat. Turkeys don’t have a great sense of smell or taste, so they choose acorns based on based on size and shape—they’re not too fussy! In addition to acorns, Cornell Lab adds that they will also eat beech nuts, hickory nuts and other seeds and berries.

The Virginia DWR notes some other interesting facts about Wild Turkeys:

  • Turkeys begin courting in late March or Early April. They lay eggs around mid-April; peak incubation is around the first week of May and eggs hatch about 28 days or so later (early June).
  • Virginia’s Wild Turkey Population is about 180,000 birds.
  • Juvenile males are called “Jakes” while mature males are known as “Toms.” Females are called “hens.” Beards on males can grow 8-12 inches in length.

Cornell Lab provides that turkeys live year around in open forests. They nest on the ground at the base of trees or under piles of brush. They can fly and will roost in trees at night, flying up into branches when the sun goes down and finding the perfect spot to spend the evening. This helps protect them from ground predators such as foxes and coyotes. Nests are sometimes raided by racoons, rat snakes, other birds (like the Great Horned Owl) and rodents.

According to Arlington County Natural Resources Manager, Alonso Abugattas, Wild Turkeys are becoming more common in the Arlington/DC area. His Capital Naturalist blog includes additional items of interest about them. 

Who knows how long this South Arlington Wild Turkey will stay around? Perhaps come springtime, she’ll find a suitable mate and leave to join a flock and start a family. Time will tell.  

Impact of White-Tailed Deer on Arlington’s Forests

by Leslie Cameron and Bill Browning

In mid-November, ARMN members Bill Browning, Jeff Elder, Steve Young, and Leslie Cameron met with Arlington Parks and Recreation Conservation and Interpretation Manager Rachael Tolman to evaluate a deer “exclosure” in Gulf Branch Park. 

Photo of ARMN volunteers standing in front of a deer exclosure
L-R: Rachael Tolman, Steve Young, Bill Browning, Jeff Elder at damaged Gulf Branch deer exclosure. Photo by Leslie Cameron.

The deer exclosure was built in 2017 as part of an Eagle Scout project for a local Boy Scout troop to protect the vegetation inside from deer browse. As the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population in Arlington has grown, their impact on Arlington’s forests has grown too. Deer exclosures are one strategy for protecting habitat from deer browse and can also play a role in collecting data on the impact of deer in our forests. They can also potentially play a big role in educating people, who can compare protected and unprotected areas as they walk by. In the 4 years since it was constructed, the deer exclosure in Gulf Branch has fallen into disrepair.

Photo showing a damaged deer exclosure.  The fencing is crumpled and has pulled off the post.
Damaged deer exclosure at Gulf Branch Park. Photo by Bill Browning.

The group discussed repairing or rebuilding the exclosure (exclosures need to be 8-10 feet high to effectively exclude deer) and reducing the size to make it easier to maintain. To collect data on the impact of deer, a fenced exclosure (the “variable”) is paired with a same-size nearby unfenced reference plot (the “control”). The diversity of species and quantity of vegetation in both plots is documented over time. Signage can inform the public about the project, as well as discourage residents from disturbing it. 

Impact of deer on a healthy forest

Deer are Virginia’s largest herbivore. An adult eats 5-7 pounds of vegetation a day, or a ton each year. If there are more deer than the land can support, deer browse begins to degrade the understory in a forest. The forest understory—forest floor, herbaceous plants, shrubs, seedlings, and young trees—supports native ground-nesting birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Deer browse limits the food and cover for these species, and they decline. The understory also includes the young trees that form the forests of the future. A forest without its understory cannot regenerate, which means that there will be no mature trees in the future. Because deer prefer native plants, deer browse disturbs the diversity of plants, and allows invasive plants to multiply in their place. 

Photo of the understory at Lacey Woods Park
Lacey Woods Park in Arlington has not been heavily deer browsed and has a healthy understory. Images 3 and 4 were taken on the same day in November 2021. Photo by Steve Young.
Photo of the understory at Long Branch Nature Center
Long Branch Nature Center Park has been heavily deer browsed. Without a healthy understory, forests cannot regenerate. Images 3 and 4 were taken on the same day in November 2021. Photo by Steve Young.

Male deer also rub antlers on trees, which can damage them. For more background on the effects of deer on our forests, see the May 2020 ARMN blog article, “White-tailed deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia.”  

Deer population over time   

By the 1930s, deer had almost disappeared from Virginia and had declined in many eastern states. States implemented regulations to protect deer and their habitat, and the population began to rebound.  Effective predators of deer (like the gray wolf and eastern cougar) were extirpated from Virginia, and development and fragmentation have increased edge habitat, which deer prefer. These changes have contributed to a rapid increase in the population of deer. 

Graph of deer population of Virginia from 1600 to present.  Present population is between 1 million and 1.25 million.
From p. 11, Fig 2 of: “Virginia Deer Management Plan 2015-2024.”

Assessing Arlington’s deer population and next steps

In response to concerns about the impact of deer in Arlington’s forests and other natural areas, Arlington County hired an independent contractor to conduct a drone survey of the population in spring 2021. Some Federal property owners (National Park Service, Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Reagan National Airport) did not grant permission for the aerial drones so these areas were excluded. Further, the contractor was unable to obtain a permit to fly the drones at night when the heat signatures are easier to detect. The survey counted a minimum of 290 deer in Arlington that were concentrated in wooded and natural areas. Four of the survey sections had deer counts at levels which most experts agree is too high for regeneration of native plants. All of Arlington’s seven Natural Resources Conservation Areas had too many deer. The contractor recommended aggressive deer management, particularly in those areas. 

Bar chart of deer population in Arlington neighborhoods.
From p. ii of: “White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Population Density Survey using sUAS Infrared: Arlington County, Virginia – Spring 2021” that shows the approximate numbers of deer in Arlington neighborhoods.

Arlington is in the process of hiring a second consultant to determine if a deer management strategy is needed and if so, to develop an implementation plan. Please see the County’s website for its current plan.

One management strategy some jurisdictions have considered is immunocontraceptive vaccines such as porcine zona pellucida (PZP) or GonaCon. In practice, this strategy has challenges with open herds. Annual injections may be needed to produce infertility. These vaccines are injected by hand into captured deer or hypodermic darts are fired remotely. Deer are susceptible to capture myopathy muscle damage that results from the extreme stress of being repeatedly captured. Darts delivered remotely can miss the target or fall out before delivering the dose. Despite many attempts nationwide, there are few reported instances where these medical intervention strategies have proven even marginally effective. Moreover, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources does not approve of these techniques for managing the size of deer herds.

Another strategy is managed hunting, which can take several forms, depending on location. This method usually involves professional sharpshooters or volunteers with rifles or archery tackle. Managed hunts can be conducted safely in restricted or urban areas, and done properly, result in very low rates of nonlethal wounding for deer. As noted in the 2020 ARMN blog piece cited above, neighboring jurisdictions have taken steps to manage their deer populations. Fairfax County has had a deer management program in place since 1998. Montgomery County established a deer management program in 1996. Both counties use all three hunting methods. The National Park Service established a deer management plant in 2012; the NPS primarily uses professional sharpshooters who hunt at night in collaboration with a variety of police authorities. All three jurisdictions have had no safety incidents since their programs’ inceptions.

Where they are highly concentrated, deer are damaging forests and degrading habitat in Arlington, at the expense of the other species that occupy the ecosystem, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Without natural large predators (wolves or mountain lions,), the deer population is out of balance. It is important to take steps to restore this balance to protect the future of Arlington forests and all their inhabitants.

Actions members of the public can take 

Learning about the impact of deer on forests and other natural areas is critical. Anyone can assist in education efforts:

  • Share this blog piece with friends and neighbors in community newsletters and on “Next Door” or other community social media.
  • Is your neighborhood community group interested in a deer education presentation? If so, send that information to ARMN via “Contact Us” on armn.org.  
  • Ask about nature walks to bring attention to the impact of deer in natural areas via ARMN’s “Contact Us” feature.
  • Participate in Arlington programs that are approved to rebuild and maintain deer exclosures and gather data on the impact of deer on natural areas. 
  • Avoid feeding deer or encouraging them to approach. You may also protect your landscape with a deer exclosure and other strategies. For more details, see: Virginia Cooperative Extension publication, “Deer: A Garden Pest.”

For more information 

The following resources have more information about the impact of deer in natural areas and about Arlington’s process for assessing the problem and determining next steps.

ARMN resources: https://armn.org/deer-management/

Arlington County Deer Survey and Next Steps: https://www.arlingtonva.us/files/sharedassets/public/parks-amp-recreation/documents/arlington-county-deer-survey-and-next-steps.pdf

ARMN Ozone Garden Work Continues at Walter Reed Community Center

by Barbara Hoffheins, Todd Minners, Terri McPalmer, and Jon Bell

In 2020, Arlington Regional Master Naturalist (ARMN) volunteers initiated the Ozone Garden with the cooperation and support of Arlington County Parks at Walter Reed Community Center (WRCC) located at 2909 16th St S, Arlington, VA 22204. (The beginnings of this project were reported in an earlier blog piece, “The Ozone Bio-indicator Garden Project: A Cooperative Effort Between ARMN, Arlington County, NASA, and Harvard.”) 

The garden is part of the Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network, which is coordinated by the Harvard University and Smithsonian Institution Center for Astrophysics (Smithsonian Astro Observatory), and affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (sponsored by the National Science Foundation), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA’s TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) mission is to measure air pollutants at high precision across North America with a specially designed instrument scheduled to launch on a satellite in 2022.  

The observations of ozone effects on plants in the ozone gardens add to the understanding of ground-based ozone seasonal patterns, distribution, and intensity. Ozone is formed by the interaction of sunlight with carbon monoxide from burning fossil fuels, nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Elevated ozone levels can seriously damage crops and forests and cause respiratory damage or distress in humans and animals. See: USDA Agricultural Research Service report. These and other reasons are why NASA is interested in monitoring and tracking ozone globally. 

Ozone enters the leaves from the underside through the stomata and interferes with the photosynthetic process. Ozone damage is typically observed as brown stippling (spots), on the tops of mature leaves, in between and not crossing the veins, and for many plants, not visible on the underside of the leaf. The damage starts with a few spots and can increase to cover and eventually kill the leaf. Insect damage, such as chewing or cutting, and disease effects are visible on both the tops and bottoms of leaves but can be mistaken for ozone damage.

Photo of a leaf showing yellowing and spots
Sensitive bean damage from ozone (spots) and insects (holes) observed August 13, 2021. Photo by Barbara Hoffheins.

Ozone damage to leaves of sensitive plants can be observed when the ozone level is sufficiently high over a long enough period. This could be a very high level of ozone for as few as two hours or a moderate level for many hours or days. The bean plants in ARMN’s Ozone Garden started showing signs of ozone damage in late summer. To roughly correlate with the visual observations, data was used from the Arlington County air pollution monitor located at Aurora Hills Visitor Center that measures and reports nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and ozone levels on an hourly basis. During the 2021 growing season, there were very few days when the Aurora Hills monitor reported ozone at sustained elevated levels and most of the days were in late July, early August. 

ARMN’s Ozone Garden is located on the west side of the WRCC building near a children’s playground. In the spring of 2021, ARMN volunteers constructed three raised beds and planted the following provided by the Smithsonian Astro Observatory:

  • Sensitive and tolerant varieties of snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris): tolerant is var. R-123, sensitive is var S-156. 
  • Sensitive and tolerant varieties of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.): var. BEL B is tolerant, var. BEL W3 is sensitive.
  • Sensitive potato (Solanum tuberosum): var. La Chipper.
  • Sensitive milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  
Photo of a garden planted in raised beds
Garden on July 27th at the peak of growing season. Photo by Barbara Hoffheins.

ARMN prepared informational signs in English and Spanish about the garden purpose and ozone effects to inform passersby. The volunteers monitored the garden throughout the season to water, weed, and report observations of the plant leaves. Sometimes visitors to WRCC stopped by to chat with volunteers.

ARMN volunteers learned a lot this season. Although the volunteers collectively have a variety of relevant skills and expertise, monitoring for ozone damage and distinguishing ozone damage from other garden problems were new activities for all.  Other issues that needed to be address were insufficient water drainage early in the season, a soil test that indicated excessive alkalinity, and plant leaves that exhibited insect and disease damage. The team also installed rabbit protection for the potato plant after discovering bitten off stems and leaves. The volunteers consulted several sources, including experts from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network, online scientific publications, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and NASA brochures. 

Recently, the team added some manure where the tobacco had grown, turned over the beds, and planted coneflower and milkweed seeds that need winter weather to trigger germination in the spring in pots that are sunk in the ground. They also tightened up corners of the raised beds that had moved a bit during the summer.

Photo of volunteers standing on a path next to the garden
Winter prep on October 22, 2021. Photo by Todd Minners.

The ARMN Ozone Garden Team has these goals for the 2022 growing season:

  1. Use the garden to illustrate visually the impacts of ozone pollution on plants. 
  2. Add signs with more detailed photos of each type of plant and instructions for how to find ozone damage and include a QR code on the signs to connect to online educational links.
  3. Enumerate actions that anyone can take to reduce ozone levels.
  4. Develop and conduct outreach programs at the garden to educate all ages about air pollution in Arlington and the negative impacts on agriculture and human health.
  5. Collect data on ozone damage present in the garden and report findings to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
  6. Monitor and maintain soil quality for health and consistency across all three garden beds.

The ARMN Ozone Garden team welcomes visitors to the beds at Walter Reed Community Center to see where the project is taking place. As noted above, the beds are located in front of the building on the west side.

Habitat Restoration at the Fairlington United Methodist Church

Text and images by Leslie Cameron, unless otherwise noted.

On a recent sunny workday in October, volunteers worked to remove invasive plants and plant native shrubs in a habitat restoration area adjacent to the Fairlington United Methodist Church (FUMC), at 3900 King Street in Alexandria.

Photo of an ARMN volunteer posing next to a shrub
FUMC Habitat Coordinator and Extension Master Gardener Anne Wilson, with a Black haw viburnum (Vibernum prunifolium) about to be planted.

In 2018, FUMC designated the half acre of wooded area and lawn near the church parking lot at Van Dorn Street and Menokin Drive as a native habitat restoration area. This parcel of land had been untended for many years, and heavy rains spilled extensive water down the Van Dorn Street hill, creating significant erosion. An initial focus was stormwater management. But FUMC’s long term vision is “to restore and sustain a 1/2-acre habitat of native trees, shrubs, and plants so that the community in the urban area where it is located has access to a place of spiritual rest and renewal, and opportunities for education inspired by the intricacies of the ecosystem.” Extension Master Gardener Anne Wilson and Arlington Regional Master Naturalist Clint Stretch have been the coordinators of the habitat restoration area since its inception. In the first year, paths were created and extensive populations of invasive plants like porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), and others were removed. A circle of “stump seats” was added in the second year, inviting not only church members but neighbors from the community to visit. Visitors included children from the Fairlington Presbyterian Preschool across the street, who use the circle for their story time. FUMC welcomes everyone to enjoy the habitat, and many residents in the surrounding communities visit and rest in this space. 

Also, many church and community volunteers continue efforts to restore this area, including ARMN members Carol Weldon, Doug Brown, and Leslie Cameron. While ARMN habitat restoration work is focused on public lands and parks, ecologically significant private property, where the habitat improvements and educational value to the broader community are substantial, may receive special ARMN Board approval, as is the case with the FUMC work.

Grants from the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia and Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, working with the City of Alexandria, have funded the installation of native plants, including water-retaining plants to help manage stormwater runoff from the parking lot. 

Photo of a Sweetbay magnolia shrub.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) planted near the parking lot to help manage stormwater runoff.

In addition, a recent grant from Virginia Department of Forestry’s Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant Program is funding the planting of native trees to improve water quality, increase the tree canopy, and provide additional wildlife support. On a recent October workday, volunteers planted five black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and three Black haw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) shrubs. Other practices include keeping dead trees standing as “snags” (trees left in place that decompose naturally) and maintaining brush and log piles to support insects, birds, and other wildlife. 

To promote native plants, the church has installed signage explaining the project and is building a demonstration native wildflower rock garden on a bank above the Van Dorn Street sidewalk, including wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), and goldenrod (Solidago sp.), plus nine redbuds (Cercis canadensis).

Work this year will continue till about mid-November, and Anne and Clint anticipate starting workdays up again in the Spring. Volunteers continue to be needed to pull invasive species and maintain the restored areas. In early spring, FUMC anticipates transplanting numerous small trees to more optimal spaces within the habitat. Anyone interested in joining workdays on regular Tuesday morning events or participating at a different day and time should email Anne Wilson at wilsanne@gmail.com to be added to a workday sign up list.

On-going LDS Volunteering Having a Huge Impact in Five Arlington Parks

By Tina Dudley 

Since October 2020, Cindy Lund has been assigning young men and women from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to work with ARMN Park Stewards for on-going, weekly volunteer service. Master Naturalist Glenn Tobin first met the LDS missionaries and Cindy, an LDS coordinator, through Trudy Roth of National Park Service, who manages volunteers for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. After he worked with them for a day or two, Glenn introduced Cindy to ARMN Vice President, Phillip Klingelhofer, who established the ongoing partnership. 

Currently, LDS volunteers are working regularly in five area parks—Brandymore Castle Park, Tuckahoe Park, Potomac Overview Regional Park, Jamestown Park, and Sharp Park. 

All of the Stewards are immensely grateful for these hardworking, dedicated, and fun-spirited volunteers, as well as Cindy’s efforts. Without Cindy, none of the parks would have benefitted from these amazing volunteers. Gary Shinners, one of the Park Stewards, describes her as incredibly responsive and a joy to work with—she does a great job of coordinating. 

Many of the volunteers have worked tirelessly to remove invasive plants. These plants aggressively consume limited space and resources, and don’t contribute to the energy cycle. It takes millions of years for native plants and insects to co-evolve, so when foreign plants are planted or spread unintentionally, most insects are not able to eat them. This reduces the population of insects that primary predators, like birds, reptiles, and mammals, have to eat, thus reducing biodiversity. However, when these invasives are removed, it makes space for productive native plants to thrive, and creates food and shelter for native animal species. Below are a couple of the many wildlife beneficiaries of this labor of love:

Jo Allen, Park Steward of Brandymore Castle Park, describes the “sisters” (the female LDS volunteers) as “incredibly helpful.” They first started in January 2021 and have come every Thursday and have worked hard to remove porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) and English ivy (Hedera helix) from the park. In the photo below, Sister Cella is battling with a gnarly root to prevent the porcelain berry from invading a newly planted bed of native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Photo of a volunteer removing invasive plants
Photo by Jo Allen.

As she works with the volunteers, Jo weaves in lessons about ecology and botany. The volunteers are enthusiastic and friendly when speaking with members of the public who inquire about the project. 

One volunteer, Sister Cummings, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity: “It was a pleasure serving, I am grateful for the experience, I learned a lot from Jo. I would recommend [that] others serve at parks and get to know the area. It’s a beautiful planet, we should be grateful for it. We show our gratitude by learning about it so we can take care of it.” 

Mary McLean has been a Park Steward at Tuckahoe Park for over 15 years, and she once taught at the elementary school beside the park and often walked her dog at Tuckahoe. Mary’s volunteers from LDS started in February and they have been coming every Tuesday. The women are highly motivated to pick up trash and remove invasives such as English ivy, porcelain berry, and Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).

Photo of volunteers holding a sign that says "volunteers at work" next to a bag of removed invasive plants.
Tuckahoe Park LDS volunteers with their haul for the day. Photo by Mary McLean.

Mary also enjoys teaching the volunteers about the park and the plants within it—both native and invasive. Stiltgrass, native to much of Asia, was introduced as a packaging material for fragile items like ceramics. Mary explained Tuckahoe Park’s interesting geology. It is a bowl-shaped park that used to have a stream but after the stream was buried, there was a shift. With less moisture in the ground, the park unfortunately lost some mature oaks. But this opened up the canopy for the return of a lot of young oak trees and other native plants such as the Virginia jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana). 

At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Park Steward Gary Shinner’s volunteers have been building garden boxes, erecting bird boxes, fixing fencing, and doing trail maintenance, and pulling invasives. His group of male LDS volunteers (known as “elders”) have come every Friday since March. Gary shared how lucky he is to have their help, saying “If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the projects I have done this year. I consider myself incredibly fortunate.”  

Photo of volunteers standing behind a fence
Potomac Overlook Regional Park LDS volunteers ready for another day of hard work. Photo by Gary Shinners.

About once a month, Gary leads the elders on a hike around the park and teaches them about ecology. They are now very skilled in plant identification and can proudly differentiate porcelain berry from a native grape vine (Vitis spp.). A history-buff, Gary has enjoyed teaching his volunteers about the indigenous people who once lived on the land and even led the group to find rock shavings that were created in the process of carving arrowheads.

Gary also brought the volunteers to another small park, Jamestown Park, which is adjacent to Jamestown Elementary School. The volunteers have removed invasives from a slightly sloped site where the school has agreed to build a rain garden. This incredible before and after photo is a great example of the profound impact LDS volunteers have had in parks across Arlington! 

Photo showing the park before invasive removal and the cleared area after invasive removal
Photo by Gary Shinners.

The area shown here will soon be a native wildflower meadow and rain garden, which never could have happened if the elders had not first removed the non-native invasive plants from the area.

In the process, the elders extracted a long 25-foot porcelain berry vine. It was so long the elders were able to play jump rope with it!

Gary explained that this video beautifully captured the positive attitude and fun-loving nature of his group of volunteers, who worked very hard on whatever they were asked to do but also had fun along the way. 

Colt Gregory has also worked with LDS volunteers in Sharp and Tuckahoe Parks. He described the experience as such: “We learned from each other as we cleared mounds of ivy from Tuckahoe and thick vines and underbrush from Sharp. The group learned to identify and remove the bush honeysuckle (some the size of small trees), wineberry [Rubus phoenicolasius], porcelain berry, and how to avoid (mostly) poison ivy. I learned about the outdoors in the South and West and talked to my groups about the importance of stewardship of the land. It was a different mission from the one they expected but all took to it with strength, perseverance, and good humor. Eventually we had a name—Invasive Assassins—and we wore our t-shirts proudly.” 

Photo of volunteers clearing the invasive underbrush in the park
Elders clearing the underbrush at Sharp Park. Photo by Colt Gregory.

Another group of volunteers worked with Glenn Tobin, winner of Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for 2020. Most of the volunteer effort was along the Potomac Heritage Trail in the George Washington Memorial Parkway near Windy Run, just alongside the Potomac River. From Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, Glenn led 28 events with the missionaries and they contributed about 450 hours in total. They removed a lot of kudzu (Persicaria perfoliata), English ivy, and “a lot of just about every other invasive known to human-kind.” Glenn described their incredible impact by saying, “Their work basically added another year of activity to what would have otherwise happened, so we are one year ahead of what we would have been otherwise.”

Photo of a volunteer dragging a large mass of english ivy
An elder dragging a bundle of English ivy the size of a semi-trailer. Photo by Glenn Tobin.

Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run Park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the Potomac River, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help people make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. (See: related ARMN blog piece.)

On behalf of ARMN, I want to applaud the continued hard work of LDS volunteers and the Park Stewards all across the Arlington Region. Readers who would like to get involved in their own local park are encouraged to contact us to be connected with a Park Steward. It is a great opportunity for team building and service for your family, workplace, or place of faith—and who knows what wildlife you may find in the process!

Restoration for the Ages – RiP in Arlington’s Haley Park

Text and images by Devin Reese, unless otherwise noted.

Photo of a volunteer sitting on the ground under a tree
Arlington Regional Master Naturalist and Haley Park Steward Jennifer Frum sitting on invasive Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia numularia) that spread from a house plant discarded in the park.
Photo of a volunteer holding a plant and looking at the roots.
Bill McLaughlin removing invasive Porcelain berry from the park.

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. 

Photo of a volunteer pulling invasive plants
Volunteer tackling porcelain berry during a recent invasives removal.

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.)

Photo of a volunteer crouched and pulling Japanese stiltgrass
Camilla pulling out handfuls of Japanese stiltgrass.

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.

Photo of two volunteers removing invasive plants
Family working side by side to extract invasives.

I worked alongside an entire family whose youngest squatted down to pull out Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).  

Photo of a volunteer looking at the camera while leaning over to pull an invasive plant
Reid trading a pickax for gloves to remove a less stubborn invasive.

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).

Purple Bluets (Houstonia purpurea). Photo by Bill McLaughlin.

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.htmlhttps://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=HOPU2, and https://inaturalist.ca/taxa/132219-Houstonia-purpurea.