Last summer I was tickled to discover eleven new (to me) species of wildflowers growing along the Potomac between Fletcher’s Cove and Chain Bridge. These weren’t little bitty plants, either – most were big and showy. So yesterday I went back and hiked the river trail from Fletcher’s to a point within view of Chain Bridge – about six-tenths of a mile. And this is what I saw:
It’s forgivable if you find it pretty, but to a native plant enthusiast it’s a horror show, a textbook example of the danger of alien invasive species. It’s lesser celandine, aka fig buttercup (Ranunculus ficaria, previously Ficaria verna, Ranunculaceae), one of the worst invasives in the area. And you can see why from the picture. Strictly speaking, that isn’t a monoculture, as I did find other species in there: henbit and some purple deadnettle (also alien invasives), with a few spring beauties popping through. And, near Chain Bridge, I saw a single clump of field chickweed.
Try to imagine this. The area is a floodplain about one-tenth of a mile wide (from the river to the slope up to the canal towpath) by at least six-tenths of a mile long, and the whole thing is predominately one species.
This is why we hate invasives. Not because they’re alien per se, but because they can overcome everything. Imagine what this might have look liked a few decades ago: a carpet of Virginia Bluebells giving way up-slope to trout lilies, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, and cut-leaved toothwort.
It makes me a little sick.
Is that area National Park Service land? I’d love to help remove that stuff, try to restore that area. Obviously it would be a huge undertaking, but not impossible with organized effort. There’s a patch of it on Billy Goat B I’d love to get rid of, too. My first wildflower year, I spent an hour or more taking pictures of the pretty yellow flowers. Now what I see are dangerous, choking mats.
Yes, it’s part of C&O Canal NHP. Someone on the Maryland Native Plant Society facebook page said that they’re doing a good job of controlling it in Rock Creek Park. It’s notoriously difficult to remove effectively without destroying the spring ephemerals.
Yes, concern about killing the nice stuff is why I don’t just start tearing it out myself (like I do with garlic mustard, which is easy to remove). It seems like attempts to remove it couldn’t possibly do more harm than the plant itself is already doing. But I guess that’s for experts to decide. If you hear of a call for volunteers, I’m in.
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