HYATTSVILLE, Md. — A small, harmless-looking plant caught the eye of Dr. Marc Imlay – a conservation biologist, park ranger and lifelong weed warrior – while he walked the east side of Magruder Park’s woodline. It was a young, invasive bush.
“It’s Asian bush honeysuckle,” Imlay said. “It increases the risk of Lyme disease where there’s a patch of it by a factor of 10.”
Asian “bush” honeysuckle is one of several invasive plant species that plague Hyattsville’s Magruder Park – a popular recreational spot in the heart of the city that offers walking and biking trails, soccer fields and basketball courts – and is home to family events like pancake breakfasts and carnivals. Several invasives found in the park disrupt the natural plant diversity, affect local wildlife and even attract unwanted pests that can threaten frequent park goers.
But a decade-long plant removal effort made possible by Imlay and the Sierra Club, volunteers from Terps for Change, Hyattsville residents and city staff, has had a noticeable impact on the area ecosystems.
“You can really see the difference,” said city arborist Dawn Taft of Imlay’s years-long work to remove invasive plant species from the east side of the park, which today is nearly free of them. “It’s night and day. You can just see the emptiness.”
About 15 to 20 students started their spring volunteership this year at Magruder in early March to help Imlay and the city clear the west side of the park. They volunteer every Saturday morning for four hours. City of Hyattsville residents also volunteer on Saturdays, but only once a month under the guidance of Taft, Imlay or other trained leaders.
Volunteers learn about and focus on removing one plant per outing. The city provides gloves, saws, spades and plastic bags to make removal efficient and organized, which helps with recording what has been removed and what areas have been cleared.
“It’s pretty exciting now on the west side,” where volunteers are currently working, Taft said. “Those little ones [young bush honeysuckle] … we can remove – with volunteers on a weekend – we can remove a couple hundred of them, you know, because they come out so easy.”
When the ground is soft, especially following a warm, rainy day, eliminating delicate invaders by the roots is simple.
But a quick pluck from the base is impossible when tackling larger plants, like adult bush honeysuckles, which can grow up to 15 feet tall and require saws to cut their multi-inch thick trunks. Herbicide and plastic bags are used on stumps to prevent reproduction, according to Imlay.
Many nonnative species pose no problem to local ecosystems. But others can destroy the ability of some native plants to survive. Removing some invasives helps save numerous native plants including American grape vine and beech trees, tulips, pokeberry, blackberry, poplar, sycamore, skunk cabbage and even dreaded poison ivy, all of which are native to Magruder Park.
Invasives are also expensive. According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, annual damage costs associated with land and water invasive plant and animal species in the United States are more than $130 billion.
Removing bush honeysuckle remains a priority for volunteers. Once established, the aggressive bush disrupts the natural wildlife by creating a canopy-like coverage, which provides space for small rodents to hide from local bird populations, decreasing their available food source. The large plant gives space to other invasives to climb, like porcelain berry vine, vinca vine or bigleaf periwinkle and honeysuckle vine, which add to the coverage and deprive local plants access to sunlight, Taft said.
Moreover, bush honeysuckle poses an indirect threat to the myriad locals who frequent Magruder Park because it offers shelter to deer, which increases the presence of ticks and the potential for Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Ticks will actually sit on plants and wait for hosts to go by. That could be a small deer mouse, that could be a nine-year-child playing soccer,” said Dr. David Crum, state public health veterinarian at the Maryland Department of Health.
Two charts on Lyme disease show reported cases in Maryland and nationwide:
State and local public health professionals use surveillance criteria developed by the CDC and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists to track tick-borne related illnesses, target tick-heavy locations and help inform the population.
“We try to educate people that are in those environments [wooded areas and recreational spots] with how to protect themselves” through online resources, essays, public radio campaigns and more, including tick identification services and removal kits, Crum said.
It is important to understand our environment but to not be afraid of it, Crum said. “Go outside and live life! But just be armed with that knowledge to protect yourself.”
Before heading into the west side woodline to uproot garlic mustard, Taft directed the local weekend volunteers – all of whom were there for their first invasives pull – to wear boots, long sleeves and pants. “Poison ivy and ticks are our biggest enemy,” she told the group. She advised everyone to check their “hot spots” or common areas that ticks hide after leaving the woods.
As a Hyattsville resident, Alex Counts uses the park regularly to train for marathons. It was his first time volunteering as a weed warrior. “I certainly see the park as well-used, and making it better and safer is definitely a good thing,” Counts said.
The city uses a text message reminder system to share the monthly outing information as well as the Hyattsville Reporter, an official city newsletter distributed to residents. The Sierra Club also publishes a list of the invasive species volunteer opportunities throughout the state of Maryland.
“I think they’re excited and they’re interested and they’re anxious to get going,” Taft said about growing volunteer interest.
Imlay and Taft encourage more people to volunteer to help protect local animal, plant and human health in the busy Hyattsville park.
While volunteers continue to clear the park of invasives, Taft is looking forward to planting native plants on the cleared east side.
“I’m just excited for what we’re going to be able to do with that woodline.”
–By Colleen D. Curran