Forest Invaders

[Brenton Ebersole] 
Looking into the Metro East woodlands, one sees a vision of wilderness teaming with plants and animal life. It is unfortunate to realize that, despite this intense look of vibrancy, there is an underlying problem: the natural world is far out of balance.

Amongst the old growth trees standing within the stretches of woodlands, there are a couple newer arrivals to our Metro East ecosystem. When an old tree falls, it usually leaves enough light through the canopy to allow more trees to grow through. However, there is another species that quickly grasps a hold of the now abundant solar energy.

By far the most dominant invasive species on the edges of local woodlands is the Amur Honeysuckle or Lonicera maackii. It is native to the temperate forests of Asia and is actually listed as an endangered species in Japan. It has escaped from cultivation and become widely naturalized in most of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

honeysuckle berries

This plant is adaptable and successful in a wide range of conditions, growing extremely well even in the shadiest of areas and with little soil. In the United States, Amur Honeysuckle was first introduced in the latter half of the 18th century as an ornamental garden plant to attract butterflies and bees. It was once planted to control erosion and as field and roadway hedgerows. It spread across the countryside very easily as birds ate the fruit along winter migration routes and dispersed the seeds in many areas. It was soon naturalized. In nearly every deciduous forest under-story of the eastern United States, it forms dense growths with thick canopies that shade out most native shrubs, young trees, and wild flowers. Some seedling trees and shrubs will sit in a stasis dormant for years, not growing in size, barely holding onto life.

The Amur Honeysuckle is a large, extremely fast growing shrub that, under the right growing conditions, can reach over thirty feet in height and canopy diameter. The leaves are oppositely arranged, ovals with pointed ends. The flowers are commonly produced with several pairs grouped together in clusters. They are about an inch long, starting white and fading into yellow or light orange in color.

The fruit is a bright red to almost black purple, forming in clusters with each containing numerous, small seeds. They ripen in autumn, and are eaten almost exclusively by birds, which disperse the seeds virtually everywhere in their droppings. The shrub is frequently found taking over abandoned lots, bursting through cracks in sidewalks, making a dense thicket running along roads, railroad and beneath power lines. Amur Honeysuckle often divides like a Hydra and becomes impassibly thick.

Flowering is from mid-spring to early summer and usually brings a sweet smell to the air and a lot of pollinating insects to the area. This would seem to be advantageous to the forest ecosystem. However, the canopy formed by the vegetative stands of honeysuckle can completely monopolize the light. The bushes grow so effectively as to remove any competition from native wildflowers and flowering trees, destroying the diversity of the forest.

Fortunately, the wood of the Amur Honeysuckle is very brittle due and can be easily snapped even when lush and green. The plants can be taken back to the ground with nothing but hands and boots or hand tools. Other recommended control methods include cutting, flaming, or burning the plant to root level and repeating on two-week increments until the underground root nutrient reserves are depleted. Control through prescribed burning has been found to be most effective during the seed dispersal phase in late summer and early fall. Cutting plants back to the ground slows down their growth, giving remaining undamaged native species chance to shoot through the previous blanket level, in turn breaking the strangle hold that has been created on the forests of our area.

This species must be given the respect it deserves as an amazing, adventitious plant. Though it was planted only to compliment the existing natural beauty by well wishing gardeners of old, it is the duty of environment conscious, modern-day human inhabitants to restore the balance of our natural surrounds. It is imperative to correct the error innocently created by our ancestors and ensure that, for generations to come, humans can walk beneath towering oak forests and soak in the beautiful array of color painted by native Spring wildflower blooms.