Making a Difference at Ball’s Bluff: Volunteers Take On Park’s Invasive Garlic Mustard
Volume 26 Issue 4, Fall 2021
by BJ Lecrone, Office Management/Online Outreach
While COVID-19 stalled many events worldwide in April 2020, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy staff was able to join John DeMary on a spring ephemerals walk at Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg. I was amazed by the beauty of the spring ephemerals (the first plants to emerge in spring and the first to flower), but I was also disturbed by the overwhelming amount of Garlic Mustard challenging them. As a Virginia Master Naturalist, I’m increasingly aware of the problems non-native plants can cause. Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is allelopathic in that it changes the soil chemistry around its roots in a way that displaces natives, allowing the seeds of Garlic Mustard to continue to spread. We believe that each year Garlic Mustard is pulled will improve the soil and decrease the seed bank, so that there will be far fewer plants to deal with in the future.
In the fall of 2020, I was moved by an idea that perhaps a group of us could make a difference at Ball’s Bluff. I took on this project as a Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer and advertised through Loudoun Wildlife’s social media. NOVA Parks staff were supportive of the help, and it was fairly easy to gather interest. As I coordinated the group of 20 volunteers and winter progressed, many doubts and insecurities arose in my mind. Who would hang in there with me and continue to be inspired to make a difference? How do I show people the difference between Garlic Mustard and the natives, to protect the natives from being pulled by mistake? Could I keep up the pace as the leader of the group for six to eight weeks? Are we starting too early? It’s going to be cold! Then March 4 arrived and it was time to take the leap.
I and many others experienced a transformational sense of connection to nature and our team. There were individuals who did hang in there with me week after week, working hard and learning, and a few key people then ventured out on their own with friends who understand the problem with Garlic Mustard. Ame Persaud, in particular, concentrated on areas that weren’t even in my original scope. This brought all of us to a total of three park areas to remove Garlic Mustard and explore the native ephemerals and wildlife.
We learned many lessons:
- Starting early is important! Garlic Mustard starts growing early, even before the spring ephemerals are emerging, so starting early means less damage to the precious natives we are trying to save.
- Each invasive plant removed, no matter how small, makes an impact on the future because millions of seeds from the removed plants never get a chance to fall into the soil seed bank.
- Don’t wait until April when they are large and overwhelming because you will give up!
- Spread the word! People walking the trails learned from us as we pulled and told them the story of our mission.
Each week we gathered, pulled, and bagged. Scientific reports (cited by Blue Ridge PRISM and Invasive.org in their Garlic Mustard fact sheets) have indicated that removing the plant reduces the allelopathic chemicals it secretes, which have a negative effect on neighboring plants from the area. As each week progressed the bags became heavier and heavier. I created videos capturing what was in bloom and what could be mistaken for Garlic Mustard. Even volunteers who couldn’t make it a particular week could learn from the transformation of this gorgeous natural area after two months. Each week we enjoyed seeing different species of special native spring ephemerals while we waited for the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) to emerge. My final spring walk on April 29 featured beautiful white blooms of Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata). Garlic Mustard towering over the forest floor was not the focal point for the first time in years.
By the end of April I was hooked on the beauty of this special place. The magical time was over as the green trees filled in a lush forest. Take a few moments to see the transformation on our YouTube playlist that I shared with our group and reflect how even the small things like pulling a forest thug such as Garlic Mustard can make a big difference. Can you be a part of the next Ball’s Bluff Garlic Mustard experience in 2022? I’d like to coordinate a group of experts and beginners to continue to help Ball’s Bluff. Fill in this form if you can help lead as an expert or a beginner.
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