Reflecting on Spring and Stewardship at SAHC

035.jpgby Margot Wallston, SAHC AmeriCorps Stewardship Associate — July 2013

One of my favorite things about working in land conservation during the spring is being able to take note of the persistent emergence of botanical life after winter’s long repose. Hiking off-trail to monitor remote pieces of land affords the opportunity to witness the first signs of spring: new stems pushing up through the ground, swelling leaf buds, the first hints of color as flower petals begin to open.  It’s fun to guess what identity each new plant will take on: Will a red, clenched hand atop a fuzzy stem become false goats beard? Will a blue-purple fan of soft baby leaves become blue cohosh?

I’m not alone in relishing in this annual event.  Many people look forward to spring’s arrival as the best time to watch the forest reawaken after winter as wildflowers gradually begin to bloom.  But spring also stirs to life a host of invasive, non-native plants which compete with our native wildflowers and trees for essential resources.  One of the first invasive plants to pop up amidst our native spring ephemerals is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

img_2172.jpgGarlic mustard is a biennial plant, which means it grows over a period of two years. The first year it produces a clump of leaves that stay close to the ground. The second year it sends up a tall stem, flowers, and then finally seeds. A single plant can produce hundreds of seeds that easily scatter many feet from the parent plant.

Garlic mustard is native to Europe, but can now be found throughout much of the U.S. and the world. It was first documented in the U.S. in 1868 in Long Island, NY and is said to have been cultivated for its medicinal and culinary uses.  Garlic mustard has a strong, garlicky odor, but what really stinks about it is what it does to the forest floor once it gets a foothold. It creates conditions that are favorable to its own existence, while simultaneously creating unfavorable conditions for many other plant species. Garlic mustard is allelopathic, which means it produces chemicals that get into the soil and inhibit the mycorrhizae other plants depend on to grow—even canopy tree species can be stunted by the presence of garlic mustard down below on the forest floor.  Deer and other herbivores don’t like garlic mustard, either, so they leave it to flourish, preferring to nibble on other plants, which further compromises native plant populations.

014.jpgThat is why, in 2012, SAHC hosted its first garlic mustard “pull-n-eat” event to solicit volunteers to help prevent the stinky invasive from taking over an otherwise beautiful and healthy rich cove forest in the Sandy Mush Valley near Asheville, NC.  A small crew of four volunteers, two AmeriCorps members and one SAHC staff person spent the day deep in the woods pulling up garlic mustard and connecting with the verdant world around them.  After 4 hours of solid work time spent clearing approximately 2 acres of invasives, we celebrated our accomplishments and the beauty of the biodiversity we were aiming to protect by cooking up a veritable feast of greens we had collected on site.  Everyone seemed to enjoy eating the garlic mustard (enhanced with wild ramps!) just as much as pulling it!

It was such a fun and rewarding day that I decided to do it again this year.  But this year, I’m proud to say, we literally ramped it up a few notches (pun intended).  The efforts of our 2012 crew of seven were multiplied nine times over this year because I think we had a total of over 60 volunteers removing garlic mustard from two adjoining rich cove forests.  Our first volunteers were a group of herbalists and naturalists-in-training who were learning about all the uses of the diversity of plants that can be found in these rich environments. Their efforts were followed by a wonderful and disparate group of volunteers including lawyers, students, AmeriCorps members, and other professionals. Some of this group travelled all the way from Tennessee (over two hours) to lend a hand and learn about the importance of controlling invasives, while Steve, the neighbor down the road, joined us from less than a quarter-mile away to see what all the activity was at the end of the usually quiet country road.

img_5533.jpgThose first two groups were great and got a lot done, but there was still more to pull and a tight window of time to pull it in before the plants all went to seed.  That’s when the super enthusiastic, super smart, and super-mustard-pulling sixth graders of the French Broad River Academy stepped in to save the day.

We had two classes of 12 boys each join us for two days of garlic mustard pulling in May.  They were amazing! I was very impressed with the FBRA students and staff.  The boys were extremely knowledgeable, eco-savvy, respectful and (most impressive) remarkably comfortable in the woods!  They were a lot of fun to teach and learn from; and they were dedicated mustard-pullers, too—each filling at least 4 jam-packed bags.

Thimg_5583.jpge last crew of volunteers we had out for the 2013 season might have been the most committed to efficient garlic mustard removal, and it’s a good thing they came because the remaining garlic mustard plants were only days away from ballistically releasing their hundreds of seeds. This hard-working and dedicated group was comprised of seven members of the Whole Body Team at Greenlife Grocery in Asheville.  They turned out to all be hikers, nature-lovers and really interested in learning about botany and the land.  This group returned to the area where the original seven pullers had been the year before, and I was delighted to observe that there wasn’t nearly as much garlic mustard at that location as there had been the year before.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with each of the five groups that came out to pull garlic mustard this spring.  Luckily, pulling garlic mustard turns out to be an enjoyable (and even addictive) task. It’s kind of like eating Lay’s potato chips — you can’t pull just one without wanting to do it again… and again!

img_5521.jpgBut I think what made these programs so rewarding was not the number of bags we stuffed, nor the acres cleared of invasives, nor even the complimentary garlic mustard hummus for lunch, but rather the way each group seemed fully inspired by and engaged with the landscape around them. Everyone from age 12 to age 60 who came out to this special spot appeared to experience a moment of awe and appreciation for the opportunity to witness such a beautiful place, brimming with life, and yet totally calming and nourishing.  Some of the garlic mustard will come back again next year, but hopefully so will the volunteers to keep it at bay.  With the help of next year’s cadre of 6th graders and other volunteers, this place has a strong chance at remaining a preserve for biodiversity and an incubator for future stewardship awareness.

Thank you to all of the volunteers who came out this spring to lend their much needed dexterous hands and determined spirit! Your effort and support is so appreciated!  Hope to see you again in the spring of 2014 (if not before)!