By: Jennifer Kaiser
Back when the snow piled at least two-feet high and winter refused to give way to spring, our Youth Outdoors Crew (YO5) was assigned a vast buckthorn removal project at Theodore Wirth Park. We spent a few days working alongside Susan Wilkins, Curator of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, whose enthusiasm for the landscape was contagious. I was curious to learn more about the natural history of the area, so I arranged a meeting with Susan.
She invited me into her rustic workshop near the southern entrance to the garden, and we began a conversation about the continuous maintenance efforts in the garden and park. “A lot of people see it as an untouched, pristine place,” she explains. “They don’t realize, especially in these urban areas, that it takes a lot of effort to maintain these natural spaces. We have a tendency to think that nature is taking care of itself all the time and that there are checks and balances. In a healthy system that’s the case, but in these more disturbed systems there aren’t those checks and balances. And when invasive plants move in, it throws everything for a loop.”
Year-round Susan and various groups of dedicated volunteers cut buckthorn, pull garlic mustard and even work to keep native species in check, some of which have tendencies to spread rapidly.
As one of the volunteers involved in the invasives removal, I couldn’t help but imagine what the park may have looked like, say, 100 years ago. Susan helped to paint a mental picture: “Historically, before Europeans began moving in, Theodore Wirth appeared to be more of an oak savanna, with pockets of maple and basswood forests and bogs. It would have been a lot more open here. You would have seen the full oak canopy extended – now it’s surrounded by other trees.”
Buckthorn’s proliferation allowed forests to grow around very mature oaks, and the once open savanna landscape has now turned into a dense forest. Susan expressed her concern that the oak savanna may be one of the most endangered ecosystems in our area.
Naturally, talk of endangered ecosystems and invasive species had a sobering effect and prompted me to ask, “Why do we put forth so much effort into maintaining small pockets of land when the problem seems infinite beyond park boundaries?”
According to Susan there’s a silver lining to even some of our most dire environmental obstacles. “I have firsthand experience seeing the transformation, so I do believe that the work is very valuable. When I started, there was a fair amount of mature buckthorn and garlic mustard surrounding the whole garden; it was very challenging to keep up with. So, we started getting more people involved with the removal efforts. At first it was a little questionable because, A – Could we remove everything and keep up with it? And B – There was so much disturbance with the removal efforts, that for the first couple of years, it looks almost worse.”
Here I interjected, “Yes! Sometimes when we finish a day’s work it looks like a war-zone.”
In agreement, she continued, “Then this amazing thing happens. After several years the momentum shifts to a different direction. [These areas] are now coming back and they’re vibrant native plant communities. You’ll see oak seedlings, maple seedlings, trilliums, and jack-in-the-pulpits.”
After our conversation I walked through the prairie and garden, and noticed with more care the oak seedlings and Jack-in-the-pulpits. Proof that with determination like Susan’s, there is hope that we can undo some of our own, human-influenced damage.