City of Auburn forestry specialist focuses on invasive species beyond kudzu

JOHN WEST

When someone thinks of an invasive plant here in the south, the first thing that usually comes to mind is kudzu. But this East Asian native, known for growing a foot a day on anything that doesn’t move, isn’t the only invasive species the Alabamian has to deal with. It happens to be the oldest and most remarkable.

Kudzu was introduced to the southern United States in the early 1930s to control soil erosion. However, its rapid growth meant that the plant was quickly spiraling out of control. Just 20 years later, in the 1950s, the species that has been dubbed “the vine that ate the South” was declared a pest. According to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, kudzu is now estimated to cover a quarter of a million acres in Alabama alone.

It’s a lesson in good intentions gone wrong. But nearly a century after kudzu was introduced to southern farmlands, it’s a lesson we’re still learning.

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Anne Randle, urban forestry specialist at the City of Auburn, sees the problems with kudzu recurring, but now with other invasive plant species.

“Kudzu is something that’s been around for 100 years and it’s never going to go away,” Randle said. “What I think is a bigger and more pressing issue are new invasive species that we introduce and invasive species that we keep planting.”

These plants may not be obvious at first. Bradford Pears is an example. Chinese elm, Chinese privet and wisteria are others. All are readily available at lawn and garden stores each spring.

“Bradford Pear Tree or a Chinese Elm, those are things you can always buy at the store. People plant them every day,” Randle said. “We really need to let people know what plants they can still buy from Lowe’s or Home Depot that really don’t belong in their garden, because the more we plant, the bigger the problem we’re creating.”

According to Randle, Bradford Pears, also known as Callery Pears, started causing trouble as he started breeding in the wild. They are native to Southeast Asia, reproduce very quickly and form dense thickets as they grow. These trees then become difficult to manage and displace other native plants and wildlife.

“It makes this break in the chain of how everything works,” Randle said. “And when you get that break in the way your ecosystem is supposed to work, everything starts to fall apart from that point.”

Chinese Elm, like Bradford Pears, may not be well known as invasive, but Randle says it still causes problems.

“Thinking of invasive trees, the Chinese elm is a particularly problematic tree that is still being sold and planted,” she said. “It was only recently listed as invasive.”

Randle also points out decorative plants that can cause major headaches over time.

“The wisteria is another one that’s still being sold, still being planted,” she said. “I’ve been around a very long time. Nice ornamental plant, but there’s no way to control it. If you’ve got it, you’re going to spread it.

For anyone who has dealt with the spread of these plants in spring and summer, now is the perfect time of year to get rid of them.

“If you’re going out in the fall, that’s a really good time to start cleaning, spraying,” Randle said. “Plants scavenge resources from their leaves and branches and send them to the root system when they go dormant for the winter. That means if you spray herbicide it gets down to the roots whereas if you do it in the spring you get that whole spurt of new green growth.

But mostly, Randle says she just wants people to be more careful about what they’re buying.

“It’s really just a good idea to stick with your native plants because, you know, they won’t be a problem,” Randle said. “Whereas when you bring something in, it can take 20 years before we find out it’s a really big deal.”

To help educate people about the problems these plants can cause, the City of Auburn is hosting two Invasive Plant Elimination Days: one was held on October 22 and the other on November 5. Both will take place at the Charlotte and Curtis Ward Bike Path adjacent to Shell Toomer Parkway

Volunteers will work alongside the city to impact the local ecology.

“We have experts there with each group of people so you get that one-on-one education as you go through and do the work,” Randle said.

There are no physical requirements to volunteer and children and families are welcome. Randle asks people to wear long pants and closed shoes. Volunteers can bring their own tools. Refreshments, water and additional tools will also be available. Work will take place between 8 a.m. and noon.

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