A group of about 15 new recruits reports for duty at the Kemp Mill shopping center on a Saturday morning in late February. We’re all volunteers responding to a call to action from the Montgomery Parks Weed Warrior Program and the Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC). We watch closely as our commander, FOSC’s Jim Anderson, presents the arms we’re going to employ: metal weed wrenches that are nearly as tall as some of us, pruning shears, shovels, spades, hedge clippers and a variety of picks.
Seek and destroy all the Japanese barberry we can find! The shrub, with green leaves and red berries even in winter, is one of the creek’s many exotic invasive species – silent assassins from other regions and countries that wipe out local plants and upset the natural ecosystem. Their proliferation can be fatal to wildlife such as deer, which can starve due to a lack of enough native plants to eat. Anderson, a long-time Friends volunteer who leads today’s Weed Warrior program effort to remove invasive plants, runs down the sad history of Japanese barberry.
“You can go to nurseries today, buy it and plant it in your yard,” he says, shaking his head, wistfully. “It looks fine there but birds eat the red fruit, fly over the woods and drop the seeds. It spreads all over the place from there.”
The shrub sprouts leaves earlier than native plants and retains its leaves longer. This increases ground-level humidity and cover – providing a haven for black-legged ticks and white-footed mice. They, in turn, increase the risk of an array of problems including Lyme disease – a frightening illness that carries a host of complications ranging from arthritis to facial nerve paralysis.
Briefing complete, we march – OK, nature’s troops are more the sauntering type — a few hundred yards to a spot in the Sligo Creek woods. We’re an interesting group of men and women ranging in age from 13 to perhaps 70-something. If the ability to speak foreign languages proves to be of any use, we’ll win the battle in record time. Fellow first-timer Susanna Simmons communicates in five of them. My wife, Won-ok Kim, speaks Korean. I speak Spanish and a smattering of goose.
Work commences. I visit the creek every day but this is my first volunteering outing with FOSC. I’m a little unsteady at first as I’m not quite sure how to handle the weed wrench. I observe the veterans in our group bowling the barberry right over, exposing roots as yellow as a heron’s eye. I have much more experience with the other tools so I swap out my wrench for a shovel.
Teamwork develops quickly on our squad.
People with pruning shears clip the thorny branches away so that wrenchers and shovelers can throw our weight at the bases of the shrubs. Another wave of hands drags away each fallen shrub. Two of the hands belong to my MVP on the day — Gabriel Goodwin, an eighth-grader at Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington. Dressed in Baltimore Ravens gear, Goodwin is every bit as quick as Lamar Jackson – bolting across the field to score TDs for his fellow Weed Warriors.
The work quickly proves sweaty – and immensely satisfying.
“The best thing was that we were all a team in helping to remove these invasive plants,” says Simmons, who is fighting through a chronically herniated disc and pinched nerves in her back to lend a hand. Nature’s ground forces are tough!
I’m fit as a fiddle but engaging in hand-to-hand combat proves to be a worthy challenge. Japanese barberry smacks me in the eye during the ten seconds of the whole morning that my protective eyeglasses are not on. Its ferocious, long thorns jab my legs and taunt me a little – snickering at my choice not to wear thicker jeans.
The taunts fire me up.
“You’re going down, Barberry!” I shoot back.
The shrubs cling to the ground for dear life, emitting guttural pops of pain every time we rip out a root.
No one expresses sympathy. Anything that harms native Sligo Creek plants and wildlife is our enemy. Barberry deserves to die.
Newly minted Weed Warriors, though, deserve a little break: I pull up a seat on a log and chat more with Anderson about the problems invasive plants pose. They even make it difficult for birds to nest.
I pick up my shovel and get back at it. Anderson reviews our work and drops grass seed into the holes where the dreaded shrubs once stood. With luck, the process will sprout pockets of resistance against future invasions.
Friends of Sligo Creek volunteer Jim Anderson (L) sits on a log with Chris Lancette and chats about the threats that invasive species pose to Sligo Creek.
Everyone is demonstrating great respect for the landscape and all that it holds. Anderson and the other veterans in the group point out that greenbrier is in the mix. It’s a native plant and needs to be left in place. They also take care not to cut plants on the edge of the creek that serve as guards against erosion.
A fat worm turns up in one of my shovels full of dirt. I pay my respects and set it back down.
Anderson points to other menacing plants that are planning to invade the floodplain by spring. Garlic mustard, among others, may make for a tasty addition to a salad for humans but it’s bad news for butterflies: it “out-competes” – a phrase I hear many times today – native wildflowers the colorful insects need to survive. My neighbor and long-time Weed Warrior, Ed Murtagh, teaches me that garlic mustard is vicious.
“The garlic mustard plant uses chemical warfare and poisons the soil so that native plants can’t survive,” he says. “Come March and April, the woods should be full of all different types of plants but now we only have a few. The invasives take over the whole area, and nothing can grow. All this greenery looks beautiful, but as far as animals are concerned, it’s a desert.”
The lesson doesn’t discourage me or anyone else. The more nature needs from us, the more we’ll give. Each bead of sweat we drop into the creek plants a vow to fight even harder.
Thanks to Scout Goodwin, reinforcements may soon be at hand, too. The young man issues a call to action to fellow Scouts when he flawlessly fields my next interview. I fumble the video recording, however, but his words still come out strong.
“I’ve been out here helping take out the Japanese barberry invasive species plant,” he tells me, “and I learned that hard work can pay off when you put the effort into it. I volunteer on conservation projects and it’s great to be out here. I would encourage other Scouts to continue to volunteer. It really makes a difference to our community and to the environment.”
His dad, Greg Goodwin, meanwhile, shares his joy of spending time with his son doing good deeds.
“We have limited time in our lives with our kids,” he says. “As they get older, they get much more independent and involved with other activities. You have to take advantage of opportunities to spend time with them while you can. This is good exercise for us, too – a good opportunity for us to be outside enjoying this great February day.”
My botched video of the Goodwins would start to bug me, so I go back a week later and interview them again. Gabriel, a member of Scouts BSA Troop 439 in Kensington, Maryland, tells me more about his interest in conservation – and delivers a closing thought so powerful that it catches me off guard. You absolutely have to watch the interview here:
Father and son Greg and Gabriel Goodwin reflect on the morning they spent removing Japanese barberry – with Gabriel delivering a powerful message at the end.
Anderson compliments all the Weed Warriors on a successful mission. He says that the work we did here will make an impact for years – giving native plants and wildlife a better chance to survive.
He performs an “About, face” and hikes out of the woods with my comrades – leaving me in a state of deep contemplation. Won-ok rolls camera so that I can sum up my reflections on the day.
Chris thought he was setting out just to do a little volunteer work – but it turned out to be so much more than that.
I speak from the heart about how my first mission with the Friends of Sligo Creek Weed Warrior program touched me in ways I didn’t expect. I learned a lot, and feel deeply moved by the experience. I loved every minute of being out in the woods fighting to protect the native plants and animals that call Sligo Creek home.
I hope the field report that Won-ok and I share here will inspire even more people to enlist in the next Weed Warrior mission.
The plants and critters are counting on it.
Get Involved: Visit the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission/Montgomery Parks Weed Warriors website to learn more about the issue county-wide. The site also provides an email address for you to find out about future training sessions enabling you to work on invasive plants without supervision. Join Friends of Sligo Creek to obtain details on future service opportunities on our favorite creek.