1/19 Under Story


Winter understory of Spicebush and Common greenbriar

Between the big trees and the herbaceous layer there’s an important but often neglected zone. In this little forest fragment, and many others, it’s the one occupied primarily by invasive shrubs. A popular feel-good activity for volunteer groups and scout troops is the removal of these plants. I’ve led many such events – by the end of the workday, viewing the clearcut of massive bush honeysuckle, there’s always the feeling we’ve done something good for the forest. But have we really?


I’ve been asking myself this question, since the Forest Stewards are on the point of achieving something that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago – the removal of most invasive shrub species from the 41 acre Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve. In the northernmost 10 acres of the preserve, which was most heavily invaded, the landscape now consists only of scattered trees and lots of down brush. Our intensive efforts are motivated by a USDA contract that provides small payments for invasive plant removal. To receive all payments, we’ll be required to foliar spray invasive shrub resprouts and seedlings for two seasons following their initial removal. The hope is this will prevent speedy reinvasion from the seed bank. But this is a damaged landscape, with minimal diversity in the seed bank.  If not invasive shrubs, what can we expect to grow on these sites?

To understand the possible outcomes of invasive plant removal, we need to look at how the forest got to be the way it is now. Invasive plants are not intrinsically “bad”, but rather are opportunistic replacements for what was once here. The severity of an invasion often indicates the degree of disturbance and damage a landscape has undergone, leaving many niches open for fast growing exotic plants. Removal of large understory-dominating shrubs like Bush honeysuckle unfortunately leaves that niche wide open again, resulting in a boom/bust cycle of re-invasion and removal – particularly if the same plants are still abundant in nearby natural areas.

Dense regrowth of Bush honeysuckle two years after all invasive plants were removed and stumps treated with herbicide, near trail post #15

Another possibility, more likely on sites with heavy shade and deer pressure, is the regeneration of practically nothing in the understory layer. Again, in the case of a degraded forest fragment, the lack of site adapted native plants in the seed bank is the problem. This situation is also commonly seen in eastern forests with high deer pressure, where seedlings of preferred trees and shrubs are eaten, leaving an unbrowsed layer of ferns.

Removal of a heavy infestation of  invasive shrubs has left this understory empty

So, considering the two most likely outcomes of removing heavy infestations of invasive shrubs, one begins to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. For wildlife habitat, something is  surely better than nothing. The fact that the seeds of these plants are so easily dispersed by birds attests to their popularity as a food source, and research is showing that berry-producing invasive plants can help migrating birds.  “Mass change values of landbird migrants at an inland stopover site dominated by nonnative vegetation.” American Midland Naturalist    https://doi.org/10.1674/amid-175-01-82-90.1  

Removal also depletes valuable winter cover, leaving bare ground in place of  dense brushy architecture.

The something vs nothing problem

Though I may sound like an advocate for invasive plants, that’s not the case. But when one mulls a problem over for awhile, the solution no longer seems simple. Eliminating  troublesome species of plants does not necessarily restore the habitat value of a forest, or any piece of land, for that matter.

Ideally the answer would be a huge budget for native trees and shrubs, and an army of people with shovels. Every invasive plant removed would be replaced by a native tree or shrub. We’ve likely killed hundreds if not thousands of mature Bush honeysuckle and Privet shrubs by now, so considering that the wholesale price for a three gallon native tree or shrub, plus deer fencing, is about $15.00 to $20.00 – the restoration challenge is obvious!

Not having that kind of money, the forest stewards are plugging away at a technique I’ve touched on in previous posts. Seven years ago we started understory restoration with plantings of nursery grown 2-3 foot bare root Spicebush, Lindera benzoin. This common understory shrub of moist Eastern forests was chosen because it’s one of the few native shrubs that can still be found in our little fragment. And thanks to its amazing recruitment powers, we now have the opportunity to use a more local source. As available sunlight has increased, this berry producing, bird dispersed shrub is springing up abundantly near mature parent plants. The young plants are often crowded at these natural “nursery” sites, allowing for a good deal of careful thinning. The plants sourced this way are larger, with better root systems, and endure much less time out of the ground.

Spicebush nursery with an abundance of young plants
Newly dug Spicebush next to the fungi-encrusted stump of a Bush honeysuckle

Obviously we can’t put a shrub everywhere it’s needed, so planting ten or more Spicebush together as a “starter” patch seems an effective use of resources. Placing them on sunnier sites will enhance berry production, and over time they’ll colonize the areas around them by seed. This planting strategy coincides nicely with the death of most mature ash trees, since the forest is left with many more light filled gaps.

Where only Bush honeysuckle grew seven years ago, this reviving understory includes Spicebush, Pawpaw, Blackberry, and White snakeroot

An understory layer composed of Spicebush tends to be more open and less competitive to the recruitment of other native shrubs and trees. Spring ephemerals in particular benefit – Spicebush is much slower to leaf out in spring than most invasive shrubs, giving early spring wildflowers plenty of sunlight before the canopy closes.


As evidence that Spicebush has been in the Eastern forest biome a long time, it’s one of the most important larval hosts for its namesake butterfly, the Spicebush Swallowtail. One of the best perks of restoration work is seeing these forest butterflies flitting through the understory.


And if you want to find a thrush during fall migration, a Spicebush patch with ripe berries is the place to be.

My best bird picture. Some Hermit thushes winter in the US, in this forest they can be spotted foraging near the ground outside of nesting season.

12/31 Return of the Bluebells

Bare root Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, just before planting

Once upon a time, the South Fork of Beargrass Creek meandered across a floodplain rich with spring ephemeral wildflowers. Though the passing millennia brought changes in climate, soils, and geology that slowly altered this flora, the rapid changes of just the past few hundred years have caused the local extinction of most of it. So when deciding what to plant and where, one can only draw on experience with similar sites that are less damaged. But sometimes it’s easy. In my mind’s eye I see another floodplain along a riverbank in southern Indiana, covered with acres of the purest cerulean blue. Virginia Bluebells, of course. Read More

12/9 Unnatural Forest

Five year old Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, one of hundreds planted to revive this forest’s shrub layer

Look through the boxes in your kitchen cabinet and you’ll likely see the word “natural” somewhere. Co-opted by marketers, it’s devolved into one of the most meaningless of words. The actual definition, “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind” implies that it’s possible to draw a line between human and non-human causation (an increasingly difficult task in the age of the Anthropocene!) But if any place could be descibed as natural, it would surely be a forest, right? Read More

11/16 City Bucks


Just down the hill from the LNC is a weedy meadow that’s become an arena for sparring bucks. Yesterday in the rain, my approach interrupted this old guy’s shoving match with a younger deer. You can still see a clump of his opponent’s hair on the tip of one antler prong. As fascinating as it is to watch the show, I can’t help but think it’s bizarre that urban forests have become (mostly) unchecked deer population increase zones. We really wake up to this fact during the rut, when bucks and does rush across busy streets and venture fearlessly into nearby neighborhoods.

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11/12 A Unique Voice

Bobwhite Quail, by early 20th century ornithologist and artist Louis Aggasiz Fuertes

A few years ago, wandering around online, I found one of the writers that inspired me to start this blog. Scotty Westphal blogs at  https://retrieverman.net/  and at first I thought his blog was mainly about dogs, for which he has a passion. But what kept me reading was his unique viewpoint, a combination of political liberalism, a strong conservation ethic, and a love of hunting. Hailing from West Virginia, his opinions are likely at odds with much of rural Appalachia, but his writing is steeped in a deep feeling for the natural and human history of his beloved hill country.

It’s good to hear a voice that can bridge the cultures of hunting and environmentalism, so often at odds with each other. I’m reminded of another nature writer from the early 20th century, Aldo Leopold. His most well-known book, “Sand County Almanac”, helped shape the growth of environmental ethics (it certainly had a great impact on me when I first read it as a twenty-something). Leopold was also a hunter, forester, and one of the founders of the science of wildlife management.

Here are some of my favorite posts from Scotty’s blog “Natural History”. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have. A lot of the work on his site is about dogs and canids, but not being a dog person, I was most drawn to his nature writing. Scotty is currently completing an MFA in creative writing, and like most artists is seeking a wider audience for his work. Please share your comments to his blog.










10/18 Last Days in the Jewelweed Patch

Fork-tailed Bush Katydid preparing to munch a jewelweed seed pod.

It already seems like a distant memory, those humid bug-ruled days of (very) late summer that ended so abruptly. I was in the jewelweed patch that last miserable day, but from what I could see it was a good day for the orthopteran inhabitants. One last chance to live and eat before the cold set in.

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10/5 What’s it Worth?


If you’re a migrating hummer looking for a place to refuel, the value of good habitat is immeasurable. Hummingbirds can travel about 20 miles a day, so our little forest is a haven in the midst of urban sprawl. An abundance of Spotted Jewelweed is the main draw during fall migration – hummers can both nectar and forage for insects before moving on. Read More

9/24 A Tougher Trail



It’s been rough the past few weeks. Unlike the creatures that live in this forest, I’m not well adapted to coping with the three H’s – Heat, Humidity, and Hordes of mosquitos. But after my first trail building adventure, I felt empowered to take on another much needed reroute. This one turned out to be considerably more of a challenge. Steep terrain, invasive plants, drainage problems, and miserable working conditions all conspired to make it harder than expected. And as more and more soil was gouged out of the trailbed by heavy rains, it was apparent the trail needed to be moved soon. Read More

9/12 Don’t Miss Your Chance


…To take a hike with oneforestfragment this Saturday.

Habitat Restoration in an Urban Forest Fragment   Saturday 9/15  1:00 – 2:30  

Join naturalist and forest steward Rosemary Bauman on this 1.5 hour hike, to learn what’s being done to revive native plant populations. Expect to see ripe Spicebush berries, hummingbirds in the jewelweed, and maybe a few last pawpaw fruits.   $10/ $7 for members. Please call 458-1328 to register.
It does cost you – but it’s worth it! Here’s a preview of things we may or may not see and hear, as well as many more unimagined wonders…
Ripening fruits are still hanging on the Pawpaw trees
Spicebush berries are in their prime, often with thrushes lurking in the background
We may hear a big woodpecker even if we don’t see one.
Ditto for Peewees
Hummers are still busy in the Jewelweed
And we’ll see plenty of this, as well as other fall flowers: Carolina Elephants- foot, Ironweed, Wingstem, White Snakeroot, Jumpseed, and more












9/6 Hummingbird Weed



What’s it like to be a hummer in a Jewelweed patch? Buzzing-twittering through a jungle of bright orange nectar horns big as your head… whizzing in pursuit of  companions… hanging in space as your tongue curls around sweetness….

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