Howard project entangled in weeds

Columbia wages battle against invasive plants to realize plans for park

January 26, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ensconced in a rumbling tank of a machine, Gary W. Unverzagt gazed down an unbroken line of invaders and steeled himself for battle.

Time to kill some monster weeds.

This is serious business, not unlike a war, because the weeds have overwhelmed a sprawling park-to-be in Columbia. Howard County officials estimate that half of the 300-acre Blandair Farm is overgrown with multiflora rose, and the thorny, fast-growing, tenacious shrub will keep on spreading until it is wrested out by force.

The hardy rose is one of a band of ne'er-do-wells called invasive plants, exotics that quickly take over and elbow out native species - a situation repeating itself on parks and private land across the United States. Naturalists are so alarmed by the loss of diversity that they say the only environmental threat worse than invasives is the loss of habitat to development.

"Instead of a thousand species, you have two or three," said Marc J. Imlay, vice president of the Maryland Native Plant Society. "It looks green, but if it were black asphalt, we'd be spending half our time in the conservation movement controlling it."

Howard County intends to win its battle with multiflora at Blandair, a struggle expected to take about as long as America was in World War II, with time out for the nurturing of noncombatant wildlife.

Unverzagt, whose Ellicott City lawn care company started the work Thursday, takes a dim view of the plant. His tractors can mow over small trees more easily than a bulky multiflora rose thicket, and he finds these things skulking all over the place.

"That's some ugly stuff," he said, surrounded by the shrubs. "It's the worst thing they ever brought over to this country."

Howard County has not hammered out a park design for Blandair yet. But Mark Raab, superintendent of natural resources for the local Department of Recreation and Parks, knows multiflora rose will not be in the plan. He has never seen such a dense patch of the shrub in Howard, and he wants the bulk of it gone, replaced with some meadow plants - natives, such as switchgrass.

The only multiflora that Raab plans to leave is what grows around Blandair's border, acting as a buffer and blockade for the residential neighborhoods surrounding the property.

"We got back in there and literally had to crawl on our bellies underneath the multiflora in some places, it was just that thick," he said. "They're so aggressive that they choke out virtually everything else."

On Thursday, Raab and his shock troops entered the fray to chop the plants into harmless mulch and mow it into the earth. Unverzagt fired up his huge, 130-horsepower tractor - 9 feet tall, 20 feet long - and backed into a particularly nasty swath with all 54 tempered-steel blades whirring.

A few minutes of work and the patch was clear of everything save wood chips. That impresses Raab because none of the county's mowers is strong enough to go blade-to-branch with a lot of mature multiflora and survive in good condition - and they would also leave a pile of remains to pick up afterward.

"You'd fill up probably 6,000 dump trucks hauling it out," he said.

Raab is spreading the work over four years because multiflora can be a home for animals, and the replacement shrubs will need some time to take root. But the more tangled the multiflora grows, the less useful it is as habitat.

"Once it really gets established, the wildlife won't even go in it," said Leroy Sellman, weed-control specialist with the state Department of Agriculture.

Raab is confident the mowing will work because trails that were cut through Blandair several years ago are still holding up.

Bumping along them in a sport utility vehicle, he pointed out multiflora in various stages of maturity. Some are just gaining ground among undulating stalks of goldenrod. Many others have formed a full-fledged, drab-looking jungle - all wild brown stems and thorns.

Once, Blandair was largely farmed. But Raab believes some of the land has been sitting fallow for nearly two decades, giving the multiflora plenty of time to settle in. Howard County bought the land in 1998.

"Such a shame this has been let go," he said, driving past specimens taller than his vehicle.

Raab can think of worse invasive plants. Blandair also has creeping vines insinuating themselves all over the property's trees, and that is much harder to handle.

But multiflora rose is a tough customer.

The plant can grow 15 feet high. Its flowers are short-lived, but its seeds - spread by birds - will last up to 20 years underground, waiting until conditions are right to germinate, Sellman said. A single plant can produce a half-million seeds a year.

Introduced to the United States from Asia in the 19th century, multiflora was once promoted by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service as a living fence for livestock. Only later did people notice its tendency toward total domination if left unchecked.

"It's pretty well everywhere in the county and in the state," Sellman said.

Raab wishes he could roust all the invasive plants on Howard County parkland. He simply does not have the money. He budgeted $80,000 just to expunge the multiflora from Blandair. But once it is out, he is going to make certain it does not come back. Maintaining is much easier - and cheaper - than battling the thickets.

"It's probably 10 times faster to mow than to clear," Unverzagt said.

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