June 1, 2010

Wild Ones teaches gardeners to go native

Volunteers pull garlic mustard from Evans Park in the Town of Yorkville. 

Just east of I-94 along Highway 20 you'll spot Evans Park, a 66-acre, county-owned plot of land that's little more than a dirt road loop with a few scattered picnic tables. Staying in your car there's not much to see.

But step off the road and into the woods and there's a wonderland of trees, flowers and mushrooms in all shapes and sizes. The park is home to an impressive collection of native plants that thrive under the forest's canopy. Trillium, baneberry and "spring beauty's" were all in bloom in the county park in May.

A small group of volunteers met at the park in May to protect the park's vibrant ecosystem by removing a few non-native plants capable of taking over entire forests if left unchecked. These "invasives" were brought to Wisconsin from other areas of the world and flourish here because they lack the natural controls of a native environment.

The group is known as the Root River chapter of Wild Ones, a non-profit organization created to educate the public about invasive species and to organize volunteers to protect native species.

The Root River chapter volunteers in Evans Park ranged from a botany professor at Northwestern University to a first-year volunteer not quite sure what to pull or what to leave. Everyone, regardless of experience, said their work with Wild Ones continually unfolds new levels of understanding the natural world.

Sue Borger, of the Root River chapter of Wild Ones.

They chose Evans Park, which you really will miss if you don't look for it, because it's a well-preserved location for native flowers and plants to thrive. While other areas are consumed with invasive species, Evans Park remains in good shape - at least for now.

The volunteers walked into the forest with trained eyes and spots the looming threat of garlic mustard weed and the dreaded buckthorn.

"When you learn about invasives, it's all you see," said Nan Calvert, head of the Root River Wild Ones.

All together they removed at least a dozen large garbage bags full of invasive species that can only be disposed of by burning.

Volunteers included Calvert, Diane Battisti and Ann Hillman, both of Raymond, Clarence and Karen Kaplan, of Caledonia, Sue and Barry Borger, Professor Cris Russin, of Northwestern University, Carol Beatty, of Kenosha, Debbie Kirchmaier and Ed Raymond.

The group was concentrating on garlic mustard in Evans Park. The plant aggressively takes over space from native species and makes the surrounding soil toxic for other species.

They also brought in a saw to hack out buckthorn, which is a particularly nasty tree because it creates a mid-level canopy in a forest that chokes out ground-level plants, including most native flowers. Whole forests in the state are being taken over by buckthorn, which is spread through berries that are a diuretic to birds. As the birds fly they poop buckthorn seeds along the way and the species spreads.

This freshly fallen tree was one of many remarkable sights in Evans Park. 

Wild Ones is holding its Native Plant Sale from 9am to 3pm Saturday at the Kenosha County Center at the corner of highways 50 and 45 in Bristol (click here for a map). The sale includes more than 5,000 native Wisconsin plants. Every plant for sale will have a picture with details about the plants.

Popular items at the sale include pre-assembled collections of plants designed specifically to attract hummingbirds and butterflies to gardens.

Profits benefit the group and other like-minded organizations.

Even with the down economy, the group expects the sale to do well.

"We were nervous last year, but people still felt (native plants) were important to spend money on," Calvert said. "Little by little, people who garden realize they can have a big impact."

One easy thing they can do: avoid invasive species for sale at local greenhouses. Plants like pachysandra, vinca vines and Japanese barberry are aggressive plants that will dominate native species and takeover large areas.

If you're not sure if a plant is invasive, checkout the DNR's  2010 guide to Invasive Species. Or, learn first hand by attending the Wild Ones' Plant Sale this Saturday in Bristol.

The Wild Ones Native Plant sale is Saturday from 9am to 3pm at the Kenosha County Center located near the intersection of highways 45 and 50 in Bristol. 

Professor Cris Russin, of Northwestern University

Nan Calvert (middle) and other Wild Ones volunteers.