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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 03:25 pm

Tackling bush honeysuckle, one plant at a time

Volunteers work at Lincoln’s New Salem to control an invasive species

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Chris Aherin of Petersburg’s Boy Scout Troop 54, using a “weed wrench” to pull out bush honeysuckle at New Salem.
PHOTO BY WALT ZYZNIEUSKI

More than 180 years ago, a young Abraham Lincoln was working in various capacities at New Salem. One of his duties was splitting wood, such as white and red oaks found on the rolling hills, and walnuts, burr oaks and pecans down in the floodplain. The hard tasks Lincoln undertook slowly switched toward less manual-related work activities, such as reading, which ultimately led him to the White House.

A century after Lincoln split the hard and soft woods that were found in the area, a new species was making its way into Illinois: bush honeysuckle, introduced for decorative purposes. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC), the four species or cultivars of bush honeysuckle are Tartarian, Morrow’s, Belle and Amur. Today, many states are now inundated with this invasive species.

In the forests of Illinois, including the woods at New Salem, there is evidence of the disastrous effects this imported species has had. Bush honeysuckle is like a runaway freight train with no brakes. The numerous red berries and associated seeds have spread everywhere, with new sprouts of honeysuckle popping up and spreading from one hillside, down a gully and up the next hillside.

Today, landowners and various government and nonprofit organizations are combating the spread of bush honeysuckle and trying to control it – one plant at a time. On a recent beautiful fall day, I participated in a work day at New Salem State Historic Site to cut down and remove bush honeysuckle. With little fall foliage, it was the one of predominant plants that still had green leaves on it.

Today’s work day was a joint effort of the Friends of Sangamon Valley (FOSV) and Boy Scout Troop 54 from Petersburg. A group of eight was at work with a few tools of the trade: chainsaws, bypass loppers, our own two hands, as well as a new tool called a “weed wrench,” that would help remove the entire plant, root and all.

Vernon LaGesse, executive director of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, has been working with New Salem’s site superintendent, Tim Guinan, to begin clearing bush honeysuckle and other invasive species in a small area at the site. After the clearing, the plants were piled for a spring burning.

According to LaGesse, “This was the first year we began working at New Salem. Fire will be the biggest tool for controlling honeysuckle.”

Ironically, the federal government at one time even promoted the use of honeysuckle. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission the U.S. Dept of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service sponsored a program to develop improved cultivars of Amur honeysuckle from the 1960s to 1984. Now, the federal government is also working to control the invader.

When I caught up with the hardy work day crew on the east side of the park, I could hear a chainsaw at work. Shortly thereafter, LaGesse came up to us with a sliced cut of the invasive autumn olive, six inches in diameter. LaGesse estimated it to be 20 years old and it showed scars from a previous burn.

Jennifer Aherin spearheaded an effort to have her son’s Boy Scout troop and other troops, in conjunction with the FOSV, participate in the clearing. According to Aherin, “We set this up because the FOSV have a plan for the site, and the troops could help supply the manpower.” In the forest, I could see her son, Chris, and his friend, Brandon, pulling out the plants.

I put down my camera and notebook, rolled up my sleeves, and started pulling out smaller honeysuckle plants and trimming larger species. There is nothing more pleasurable for me than being able to pull the entire plants – roots and all – out of the ground. For the larger species, we cut down as much as of the plant as we could, then LaGesse would squirt Garlon 4, a herbicide, on it to prevent re-sprouts.

It was rewarding to hear LaGesse talk about the successful conservation efforts his group has taken to control honeysuckle at other sites, such as at Washington Park as well as at the Friends’ 50-acre Wolf Preserve site.

Honeysuckle is spread by birds eating the berries from this plant, and spreading the seed. “The berries are really like eating potato chips,” LaGesse said. “It’s not a main staple food, but more like a snack.” Unfortunately, eating the berry leads to honeysuckle seeds being spread by birds.

Over a period of two hours of hard work, we cleared less than an acre out of 600 acres in the park. Looking at the rolling hillside packed with branching berry-saturated honeysuckle plants, I mentioned to Jennifer, and her friend Libby, that it would take an army to rid the park of honeysuckle and many burns to help control new plants from sprouting.

At the end of our two-hour work shift, I asked Chris and Brandon why they were interested in helping out on this honeysuckle-clearing event. “I enjoy hanging out with nature on a beautiful day and helping our community,” Chris said. Brandon: “Because it is fun.”

If Lincoln were around today, he would be amazed at what he would see in the woods at New Salem. If he had to help in the removal of honeysuckle throughout the park, I’m sure he would have worked at it. But he may not have liked this work, or called it fun. Pulling honeysuckle is hard work, but rewarding at the same time.

For additional information on Friends of the Sangamon Valley, see: www.fosv.org.

Walt Zyznieuski is a freelance writer and photographer from Springfield. He enjoys getting off the beaten path and is not afraid of rolling up his sleeves and playing in the dirt. 

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