Drive along any country road or state highway and you see lots of vegetation, sometimes masses of green ground cover with purple little flowers and often the white of the Queen Anne’s lace, all swaying as the traffic speeds by. And while they may all seem beautiful, some of these plants are actually invaders or invasive to an environment.
I joined a “botanical” tour at the Wingfield Pines reserve, located across from the main entrance to the in Upper St. Clair, so I could learn more about how these “quasi-enemy” plants are impacting the reserve's development.
Our guide for the day, intern Max Vietmeier of the Allegheny Land Trust, started us off walking through high grasses towards one of the further sections of the reserve which is still under development. You can translate that to “no path, wear tough shoes.”
Unfortunately the first plant that catches my eye is also one of the most invasive for the reserves environment, purple loosestrife or Lythrum salicaria. A beautiful tall-stemmed plant with a plume of little purple flowers on top, one mature plant can produce over two million seeds annually and the area is literally covered in purple.
“Look at how fast it spreads and the bugs love it, it’s a rich and nectary,” Vietmeier said about the explosion of purple all around us. “And none of this was put here by a person.”
The problem being that this plant is a true invasive, taking over an area and not allowing the native plants to thrive and expand.
"The best way to get rid of it is to try and contain it," Vietmeier said. "The best way to contain it is to cut the spikes (purple flowers on the top of the stalks) off, put them in a bag and throw them out."
Seems with these plants all you need to do is sneeze on them and they spread like wildfire. Now in a contained area like your back garden this might be a good thing, but in a nature reserve it’s like having a bully on the playground.
Another potential bully is something most of us see on our daily commute, Crown vetch or Securigera varia. Bloom along state roads, a carpet of little dusty green leaves with small clusters of purplish, sometimes pink or even white flowers, it is an excellent ground cover and that’s a major problem for the native environment at Wingfield Pines.
Considered native to Africa, Asia and Europe, but not to Pennsylvania, patches of crown vetch have started to appear throughout the wetland area. Again, not native and invading the space of the plants that belong in the area. And again, rather pretty.
As you walk along you run into plants, bushes and trees that are tagged in a variety of colors. These are species that are native to the environment and are being reintroduced to the reserve.
"Joel (Perkovich), the landscaper for around the ponds, planted a bunch of different shrubs, all native, almost as a guess and check method," Vietmeier said. “He thinks they all have a chance, but is hoping to see if ‘this one worked, this one didn’t work.’”
Not only does this assist the planners at Wingfield Pines, this research will assist other groups working on returning environs back to their native planting.
Of course not all native plants are ones you want. One species which most of us don’t want to see anywhere near us or our homes is poison ivy.
Vietmeier spends time spraying poison ivy in the hope of keeping the trails “people friendly.” Still he advises you keep an eye open for both that and poison hemlock, both native plants that grow throughout the reserve.
Taking a detour from the plants and heading towards one of the ponds sprinkled through the reserve, Vietmeier shows us where he spends his breaks, doing a bit of fly-fishing.
“There’s tons of fish in it,” Vietmeier said. “I caught a white croppy, large mouth bass, pumpkin seed, blue gill, carp and there’s probably catfish in there too.”
The pond is open to the public for fishing and during the winter you can catch a pond hockey game after they freeze over. The whole reserve is open from dawn to dusk, year-round and for now, it is open to dogs.
Accidentally stepping into a pile is the one “downer” of the afternoon as someone forgot to clean up after his or her pooch.